Makes 6 servings
Crème caramel is a dessert that produces its own sauce, as long as you are patient with it. After the custard bakes, it needs to cool long enough for two things to happen: the custard must become firm enough to unmold, and the caramel underneath the custard needs time to reabsorb some moisture and turn into a liquid. For both of these things to happen, the custard needs a minimum resting period of 24 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F. Bring a teakettle of water to a boil. Coat six 6- oz. ramekins or custard cups lightly with cooking spray and set them on a kitchen towel in a deep baking pan.
- To make the caramel, combine 1/2 cup of the sugar with the lemon juice in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Once all the sugar has dissolved, stop stirring and start swirling the pan, continuing to cook until the sugar is a rich golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. When the caramel has reached the desired color, add the warm water to the caramel and stir over low heat until any hard bits are dissolved. Pour a 1/8-inch layer of caramel into the bottom of each prepared ramekin.
- Combine the milk, 1/4 cup of the sugar, and the salt in a saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and keep warm.
- While the milk mixture heats, blend the eggs and egg yolks with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a heatproof bowl. Temper the eggs by gradually adding about one-third of the hot milk, whisking constantly. Add the remaining hot milk and the vanilla extract. Strain the custard through a fine-mesh sieve into the prepared ramekins, filling each 3/4 full.
- Place the baking pan on a pulled-out oven rack. Add enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Carefully slide in the rack, and bake until the edges have set and a nickel-sized spot in the center jiggles slightly when custard is shaken, 20 to 25 minutes.
- Remove the custards from the water bath. Let the custards cool on a wire rack, wrap individually, and refrigerate for at least 24 hours or up to 3 days before unmolding and serving.
- To serve, warm a sharp knife in warm water and run around the edges of each ramekin. Turn the custards out onto chilled plates.