This elegant, rich dessert is the perfect finishing touch to a light meal. It works with just about any combination of stone fruits and berries, so create your own stunning palettes with whatever array of fruit you have on hand.
Here, slices of sweet fig napped with a luscious vanilla-scented custard sauce receive a light caramelization just prior to serving.
Place the cream and vanilla bean in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring to the start of a simmer. Turn off the heat and let the mixture sit for 15 minutes to allow the vanilla to infuse into the cream. Remove the bean from the cream, scrape out the seeds with a small knife, and add the seeds to the cream. The vanilla bean can be washed, dried, and saved for another use, if desired.
Meanwhile, place half of the sugar (1/4 cup) and egg yolks in the top of a double boiler (or a small bowl) set over simmering water, and whisk until the sugar dissolves and the mixture has warmed, about 5 minutes. Make sure the water doesn't touch the bottom of the pan or bowl.
Add the cream to the pan and cook, whisking frequently, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Don't let the custard get too hot or the eggs will curdle. The process should take 15 to 25 minutes, and the sauce will feel hot to the touch when ready (it should reach 175 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer). Strain the custard through a fine mesh sieve into a clean bowl.
Cut the figs lengthwise through the stem end into 1/4- to 1/3-inch-thick slices, and arrange them in 4 shallow gratin dishes or on 4 oven-proof 7-inch plates. Nap each serving with some of the custard sauce, and refrigerate the dishes for 1 hour. If you make the gratins more than an hour ahead of serving, cover the dishes with plastic wrap once the custard is cold.
Before serving, position a rack at the highest level of the oven, closest to the heat source, and preheat the broiler on high. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar evenly over the top of each gratin and place the dishes on a baking tray. Broil until the sugar caramelizes, 5 to 7 minutes. Alternatively, you can use a propane or butane torch to caramelize the sugar. (This method is much faster, but the fruit won't get especially warm with this technique.)
Serve within 30 minutes so that the caramelized topping remains crisp.