An Unexpected (French) Ingredient Took Me Back to Mexico City

April  7, 2017

I was born and raised in Mexico City. When I was a teenager, going to the mall “by yourself” (without parental supervision) was all the rage. Of course my mom made sure that I was the last one among my group of friends to be allowed to go to the mall unsupervised, but when I was finally allowed to join them, the world/mall was our oyster.

Our Friday ritual consisted of going to the mall to grab a bite and then catch a movie. This mall was not unlike your usual American mall: some clothing stores, a couple of department stores, and a multiplex which usually played about 20 movies at a time, mostly American movies with Spanish subtitles. We liked this specific mall because it was on the way home, and the school bus could just drop us off near the entrance. But my favorite feature was the smallish food court in the basement—and here's where this stops being like your standard American mall.

Our favorite food stand served freshly made quesadillas. And no, I don’t mean flour tortillas stuffed with mozzarella cheese and a side of guac. I mean real quesadillas with fresh Mexican cheese that tasted similar to Manchego and melted down perfectly. The filling you rarely see in the United States, but is commonplace in Mexico, is potato—imagine mashed potatoes inside a quesadilla! These were made with masa and fried in small batches. They came out so puffy and piping hot, and had just the perfect consistency: the browned edges were nicely toasted while the insides remained soft and chewy. I would slather and stuff those bad boys with thick crema and drizzle (more like pour) salsa verde over them and just gobble them up, the mixture of crema and salsa verde dripping all over my hands. It was salty, creamy, spicy—amazing. The perfect bite.

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When I moved to New York a few years ago, I quickly realized that “Mexican food” did not necessarily mean authentic Mexican food: tortillas were made with flour or a funny-tasting type of corn, and salsas came with options (mild? spicy?). The limes here are never that juicy, and not as easy to find as lemons. My attempts to recreate recipes at home were scarce, and every time a recipe called for sour cream as a substitute for crema, I would just be disappointed by the lack of flavor. Don’t get me wrong, sour cream is delicious, but it’s too tangy to be mistaken for crema; too sour to actually contrast with the spiciness of the salsa verde. But crema is thicker; it has a mouthfeel to it and it is slightly sweeter. At the risk of sounding redundant, crema is creamier—and we all know creamier equals better, right?

Get creative with crème fraîche... Photo by Mark Weinberg

So a few weeks ago, while looking to make a comforting soup to fight the winter blues, I stumbled upon Thomas Keller’s recipe for butternut squash soup (thanks, Genius Recipes!), which calls for a finishing dollop of crème fraiche. I’d never used crème fraîche before. I was intimidated by the price tag of the container, but this time, I decided to follow the recipe to a T. Little did I know the crème fraîche would be the key to transport me back to my teenage years, eating those hot quesadillas with crema, but there it was: thick, creamy, luscious and juuuust the right amount of tang. My beloved crema.

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Top Comment:
“Telling me to "substitute the sour cream for crème fraiche" is the exact opposite of what the story is about. I believe you mean "substitute creme fraiche for the sour cream". In other words... replace the sour cream with creme fraiche.”
— Stone

Here are some Mexican-inspired recipes where you could (and should!) substitute the sour cream for crème fraiche:

What unexpected foods have reminded you of your childhood? Let us know in the comments!

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Ali Worthalter

Written by: Ali Worthalter

Still on the hunt for the greatest chicken recipe.


Stone April 8, 2017
Telling me to "substitute the sour cream for crème fraiche" is the exact opposite of what the story is about. I believe you mean "substitute creme fraiche for the sour cream". In other words... replace the sour cream with creme fraiche.
Lauren April 7, 2017
Not sure where you live, but in Herndon, VA you can purchase real crema at any number of groceries or tiendas. Why substitute?
ChefJune April 7, 2017
Ali, you can make crème fraîche yourself for quite a bit less $. Add 2 tablespoons real buttermilk to a cup of unhomogenized heavy cream. Stir it up and leave at room temperature until it clabbers.
Whiteantlers April 7, 2017
Loved this! Thanks. <3
Sarah April 7, 2017
Thanks for sharing such a lovely childhood memory! Your description was beautiful... and now I'm hungry.