Sugar: 1 cup
Milk: 2 cups
Whipping cream: 2 cups
Eggs: 8, large
Salt: 1/4 tsp
Vanilla extract or powder: 1 tsp
Vanilla bean (optional): 1/2, split lengthwise
Boiling water: as needed
1. Put 1/2 cup of sugar in a 10-inch (25 cm) cake pan with 1+1/2 inch (4cm) side and place it on the stove top over medium-low heat. Holding the edge of the pan with a hot pad, tilt the pan from side to side as the sugar melts and caramelizes. When all the sugar has melted and become a golden brown liquid, remove the pan from the stove. Tip the pan so that the sides and bottom are evenly coated with the syrup. Set aside. (*)
2. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the milk and cream. Scrape the seeds off the vanilla bean and put both the seeds and the pod into the saucepan. Heat until small bubbles appear along the edges of the pan; remove the pod (**). Meanwhile, in a bowl, beat the eggs until blended. Add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar, the salt, and the vanilla extract and beat until blended. Slowly pour the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture while stirring continuously. (***)
3. Place the caramel-lined cake pan in a shallow baking pan. Pour the custard into the cake pan, filling it to the rim. Pour water into the baking pan to reach halfway up the sides of the cake pan. Bake until a small, sharp knife inserted into the center comes out clean, 35-45 minutes (+). Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature. (++)
4. To unmold, slide a knife along the inside edges of the pan. Invert a shallow serving plate on top of the custard. Holding the cake pan and plate firmly together, turn them over so the plate is on the bottom. Give the pan a shake and then lift it off. The custard should drop smoothly to the serving plate. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
(*) In my experience, it takes the sugar at least 4-5 minutes to get to the melting point. Therefore, you won't need to constantly hold the pan for the first 5 minutes or so. Just make sure to be close to the stove so that you can keep an eye on the sugar and tilt the pan a shake every minute or two. When you notice that the sugar is getting golden-brown and has started melting, it is time to tilt the pan frequently. Make sure to remove the pan from the stove top as soon as the sugar is completely melted to avoid burning it.
(**) Do not throw away the pod. Keep it for future use.
(***) It is very important to add the milk mixture gradually and stir constantly while adding the milk; otherwise you will get a cooked eggs mixture! Do not panic if you notice the strings of cooked egg in the mixture. Just keep stirring and make sure to pour the milk mixture slowly.
(+) Be careful not to cut the creme all the way to the bottom. Nothing will be wrong with your creme if you do so, except for a cut on the surface of the creme.)
(++) It is very important to let it cool completely before proceeding to the unmolding step. You may need to wait for few hours so plan ahead and make sure you have enough time for the cooling down process. The creme may not drop easily into the serving plate and you may get a cracked creme if you try to unmold it when it is still warm.