Vanilla, that sweetly aromatic spice so fundamental to desserts and baking, comes in many forms. The seeds from the semi-dried bean pods can be easily gathered by scraping the back of a knife along the split bean, adding the purest vanilla flavour – along with those black specks – to custards, ice creams and more (tip: once the seeds have been removed, keep your scraped vanilla pod in a jar of caster sugar and use the vanilla-scented sugar in all your favourite baking recipes).
Quality vanilla extract is liquor in which vanilla pods and seeds have been soaked, the ‘Bourbon’ often found in the name denoting the beans’ origins in the Bourbon Islands. It’s best deployed in cake batters, doughs and other places vanilla seeds alone wouldn’t properly infuse.
Vanilla paste blends extract with additional seeds, resulting in a thick, aroma-rich liquid that’s often used by pastry chefs.
Preheat your oven to 160C.
Bring the water and 3/4 cup of the caster sugar to a simmer, stirring initially to ensure the sugar is completely dissolved. Keep it at a rapid simmer without stirring until it becomes the colour of honey, then pour the hot caramel into a heat-proof pie dish or individual ramekins.
Warm the milk, cream, vanilla extract and the remaining sugar together in a saucepan over a medium heat, stirring until almost boiling then remove from the heat.
Lightly beat the eggs in a bowl, and add a little of the warm milk mix into the eggs to temper them and help prevent scrambling. Transfer the egg mix into the milk mix while stirring. Combine well, then pour through a strainer into the toffee-coated dish, or distribute evenly between the ramekins.
Place the dish(es) into a baking tray or pan with hot water poured around it/them until it reaches halfway up the outside. Transfer gently into the oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until custard has set (give the dish a little shake- the mix should wobble but not splash). Remove the dishes from the water bath and leave to cool, then invert onto a plate to serve (you may need to loosen the edges with a knife).