Caramel Custard with Berries. (Stock imageTMS / April 24, 2013)

Crème caramel stole my heart on my first visit to Paris many years ago. It is a comfort food that I appreciate whether I'm happy or sad. The creamy, vanilla-infused center and caramel sauce-like coating make this a delicious dessert worthy of mom.

Why not make crème caramel for Mothers Day this year? There's a basic lesson to be learned in making caramel, and at the same time you'll be treating your mom to a classic dessert that works well after lunch or dinner.

You might wonder what the difference is between a custard and a flan. It is using half and half instead of evaporated or condensed milk. Each has its own distinctive flavor profile. The custard in this version has a tablespoon of caramel added right into it, creating an extra depth of flavor. A topping of colorful berries adds a lovely springtime touch.

Caramel making can be tricky, but at the same time it is fun. Watch the granulated sugar and water turn from light brown to golden brown to just a shade darker. Swirl the sugar syrup in a light-bottomed pan as it darkens. This will make it easy to see the color change and avoid burning the caramel.

If you can find fresh vanilla beans, I urge you to try them in this dessert. Splitting the bean and scraping out the vanilla paste into the half and half makes a remarkable difference in the final result. If not, spring for a good quality vanilla extract.

Baking the custard in a water bath is important because the water insulates the custard and keeps it from cooking too fast. Allowing the bath to over boil can cause cracks to develop in the finished custard and create an unpleasant rubbery texture. Lining the roasting pan with a dishtowel will keep the crème caramel from slipping as it bakes.

Be creative with the topping. Use sliced strawberries or do a mixture of mixed raspberries, blueberries and strawberries, if you desire. Use a pie slicer or sharp knife to cut into slices for serving. Place each slice on a dessert plate and spoon over some caramel sauce and berries.

Caramel Custard with Berries

Serves 4 to 6.

Custard:

2 1/2 cups half and half

1 vanilla bean, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 eggs

3 egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

Caramel:

1/2 cups sugar

2 tablespoons water

Topping: