The traditional way of cooking crème brûlée is in a water bath at a low temperature in the oven, which should not be more than 150°C/300°F/gas 2, but we find you usually get better and more consistent results from cooking the custard on the hob.
Split the vanilla pods and scrape the seeds into a bowl with the sugar. Add the egg yolks and beat with a whisk until stiff.
Scald the cream by bringing it slowly to the boil with the vanilla pods in it, then pour on to the egg mixture, whisking vigorously.
Return to a clean saucepan and cook over a low heat, whisking all the time. As it starts to thicken, change to a wooden spoon and stir, taking particular care that you scrape round the edges of the pan, where it tends to stick and burn.
As it comes to the boil, remove from the heat, stir briskly and pour through a fine sieve into individual ramekins, filling right to the brim as the custard will sink a little when it sets. (Rinse the vanilla pods, dry and keep in a jar of sugar to make vanilla sugar or to use again.) Allow to cool and then chill for at least 1 hour.
Just before serving, caramelize the tops: sprinkle a teaspoon or two of demerara sugar in an even layer on the surface and pat it down, removing any excess by inverting the ramekins. (If you got the custard wrong this is where you find out in a dramatic fashion.) A small blowtorch is the best way to apply heat to the sugar, a relatively inexpensive tool and indispensable for the burnt custard aficionado. Otherwise, flash under a very hot grill until golden brown. If black spots appear, remove immediately. To avoid burning fingers, leave for a few minutes to cool before testing for crispness.
© 1998 Alastair Little and Richard Whittington estate. All rights reserved.