3 average-size, day-old loaves of plain, round French or Italian bread
1/2 high-quality pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup half-and-half
Butter for griddle
Turbinado sugar (granulated sugar may substitute)
Pure maple syrup
Preheat oven to 300 degrees and have a pot of boiling water ready. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the cream, sugar, and salt. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally until steam rises. In a bowl, beat the egg yolks and vanilla extract until smooth. Pour the hot cream into yolks, a little at a time, stirring constantly, until blended. Divide this mixture among four 6-ounce ramekins. To ensure a smooth consistency, line the bottom of the baking pan or glass dish with a damp kitchen towel before adding the ramekins and boiling water. After placing ramekins in the baking pan, add boiling water to fill the pan halfway up the sides of ramekins. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake until custard is set, 25 to 30 minutes. Chill for 2 to 3 hours.
Cut bread into 1¾-inch thick slices. Using a serrated knife, cut a deep pocket on the side of each slice but do not cut all the way through. Fill each pocket with as much crème brûlée as possible; typically 1½ to 2 tablespoons, but this may depend on the size of the bread being used. The French toast can be prepared in advance and placed in the freezer at this stage. When ready to use, take slices out of the freezer, defrost in the microwave, and proceed with the next step.
In a shallow dish, whisk together eggs, vanilla extract, and half-and-half. Place filled bread pieces in the egg mixture and let stand until the bread is saturated, turning bread to coat all sides.
To prepare, melt approximately 3 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet or griddle for each serving. Add bread and cook until toast is golden brown on all sides and the filling is hot. When taken off the griddle, sprinkle sugar lightly on top of bread and use a kitchen torch to caramelize sugar, using small circular motions just above the surface. Be careful not to use too much sugar on top of the bread, or it will be too hard to eat. Serve immediately with a side of pure maple syrup. Add fresh fruit or a serving of bacon or sausage to this delicious treat!
P.S. For a little zip, you can also add finely chopped lemon zest to the crème brûlée after the custard is set.
The kitchen torch can be purchased at any quality kitchen store for around $30.00.