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I learned some of life's most important lessons in diners. When I was a kid, my father, a doctor, would take me along to local nursing homes to visit some of his older patients. These outings, as you can imagine, did not register high on the fun scale. But my Dad's a smart guy, and he livened things up by taking me out to a diner for a hot fudge sundae on the way home. And so I learned that good deeds were rewarded. Nursing homes took on a more positive spin.
During high school in suburban New Jersey, the Plaza Diner ("where the elite meet," according to the menu) was the big after-school hangout. My friends and I would gossip endlessly over cheesecake, French fries, and soda (occasionally splurging on burgers) and speculate on the personal lives of the waitresses and busboys who passed by. We talked about SAT scores, college plans, and who was dating whom. And it was there, one Saturday night, that a drunken boy tapped on a glass with a fork and professed his love for me before a slack-jawed crowd munching on the Plaza's beloved diner fare. I learned to stay away from drunken boys. At least in public places.
In college, when we got sick of eating tofu lasagna and chicken cacciatore, my friends and I would pile into my fire-engine-red Cutlass Supreme (with a white interior) and head to the Miss Florence Diner in Florence, Massachusetts. Miss Flo's is famous throughout the western part of the state for its outstanding corned beef hash, potato fritters, and homemade pies. It's a real old-style diner, with a bright neon sign in front and jukeboxes at every booth. In mysophomore year I was late taking my last exam before the winter break and was stuck in town for two days before Christmas. Planning to head home early the next morning, I headed over to Miss Flo's for a solitary dinner, full of self-pity. I ordered a cheeseburger and French fries with gravy and played Elvis's "Blue Christmas" on the jukebox. The good food and comfortable atmosphere soon cheered me up, and I ordered apple pie à la mode and programmed the jukebox for a Christmas song by the Chipmunks. Inexplicably, "Blue Christmas" began to play again. A few of the locals at the counter gave me sympathetic looks. The bouffant-haired waitress approached with my pie and said, "What's with you and the King, hon?" I shrugged and explained that I must have pushed the wrong buttons. The pie was wonderful, and every time I hear "Blue Christmas" I long for a piece and think of Miss Flo's.
Most people in America can recall a diner experience. This modest eatery has become a cultural institution. Although the first diners appeared in New England in the nineteenth century, they have spread from coast to coast, across much of Canada, north to the Alaskan wilderness, and even beyond. The scope of the diner phenomenon can be appreciated by visiting the Internet: a single inquiry turned up over twenty-four thousand items on just one search engine. One of them was Roadside Magazine, the unofficial Web site for North American diners. Another was a chamber-of-commerce-type promotion from South Africa's Zulu state, inviting visitors to patronize Porky's Family Diner in Empfanga, the state capital. Of course, diner settings have been a staple on television (Happy Days, and Alice) and in films for decades. Movies that immediately come to mind are Five Easy Pieces, American Graffiti, Diner, Frankie and Johnny, Pulp Fiction, and Pleasantville, to name only a few.
Diners evoke a simpler way of life, a time when people ate French fries and cheeseburgers and sundaes without thought of fat, sugar, and cholesterol, when Formica was fashionable and playing records on the jukebox was good entertainment. Diners are warm and inviting, bustling with activity and chatter, with soft music playing and the aroma of strong coffee and freshly baked pie filling the air. They are purely American, and the food is uncomplicated, generously portioned, and inexpensive.
The diner dates back to 1872, when a Providence, Rhode Island, entrepreneur named Walter Scott hitched a horse to a small cart and began selling sandwiches, pies, and hot coffee to hungry night-shift workers. His business was a big success from the start. It was known as the Providence Lunch Counter and was the first portable restaurant in the country. People gathered around the cart, eating their food from the curbside. By the time Scott retired in 1917, the lunch-cart business had become a booming industry in the Northeast and several competitors had emerged.
In 1887, a Worcester, Massachusetts, bartender named Sam Jones improved on Scott's concept by introducing the first sit-down diner. It was a lunch wagon equipped with an eating counter, stools, and a complete kitchen. A huge success, Jones's state-of-the-art operation was widely copied. In 1888, a former lunch-cart counter boy named Thomas Buckley built his first lunch wagon, which he named The Owl. Buckley began to manufacture standardized models of his Owl wagons and set them up around the country. This gained him the nickname the Lunch Wagon King. His Owl models had built-in stoves that allowed for menus that included hot meals. Diner competition became fierce, and rival businesses popped up in cities across the United States.
As the portable diner business grew, residents began to complain that the lunch wagons were unsightly. In the early 1900s, with this criticism in mind, a New Rochelle manufacturer named Patrick Tierney designed a sleek, prefabricated dining structure with all the amenities. It was a long, narrow building, similar in appearance to a railroad dining car but not mobile. It was called a dining car, which was eventually shortened to diner. Tierney's diners were compact restaurants with gleaming tile floors, shiny metal dining counters, indoor toilets, and separate booths for table service. His design became the model for the diner as we know it today.
The current popularity of the diner is due in part to its friendly atmosphere and spirit of camaraderie. The other, and more important, key to its success is tasty food that is filling, affordable, and quickly prepared. Diners have always served home-style food. On the savory side, menus may include such dishes as chicken-fried steak with a side of hash browns, meat loaf and mashed potatoes with gravy, or macaroni and cheese topped with buttery bread crumbs. While the menu items are all basic, they are rich in flavor and, of course, fat. Desserts follow the same formula. A typical diner menu may include butterscotch pudding, strawberry cheesecake, coconut cream pie, and devil's food cake. These desserts are all lavish in a home-cooked way, and this is the source of their appeal. They tend to be unpretentious, with strong, vibrant flavors and an emphasis on freshness. It is unlikely that a diner menu would include anything that is fussy or time-consuming to prepare. Napoleons, profiteroles, and other staples of haute cuisine found on the menus of highbrow restaurants are not diner fare.
Diner-style desserts are now more popular than ever, symbolizing our love for the plain, unadorned desserts of the past. The recipes in this book are inspired by all the desserts traditionally found on diner menus. They are made fresh every day from primary ingredients. There is no skimping on eggs, butter, or cream. They are oversized, bold, and sincere. Whether what you crave is a piece of cherry pie à la mode, a bowl of luscious chocolate pudding, or a hot fudge sundae, you will find your favorite diner-dessert memory in these pages.
Quality kitchen equipment will last a lifetime, making it a solid investment. When purchasing baking pans, look for heavy-gauge ones. They will cost more but will produce better results and last longer. And remember, you don't need to buy everything at once. Start with the basics and add to your collection gradually, piece by piece.
While many of the recipes in this book can be made with a handheld electric mixer, a heavy-duty stand mixer is a great convenience. If you bake regularly, you should invest in one. I recommend KitchenAid brand mixers.
4½- or 5-quart electric stand mixer with paddle, whisk, and dough hook attachments
Handheld electric mixer
This appliance is indispensable for many tasks (grinding nuts, making cookie crumbs, mixing pie dough) and saves time chopping ingredients. I recommend Cuisinart brand, which has a variety of models available.
Stainless steel dry measuring cups: ¼, 1/3, ½, and 1 cup
Pyrex liquid measuring cups: 8, 16, and 32 ounce
Stainless steel measuring spoons: 1/8, ¼, ½, and 1 teaspoon and 1 tablespoon
Kitchen scale with ounce measurements
Stainless steel mixing bowls: 1, 2, 3, and 4 quart
Large cutting board
Pie weights, dried beans, or rice for blind baking pie crusts
Two pastry brushes
Two cooling racks
Biscuit cutters: 2, 2¼, 3, and 3½ inch
3-inch doughnut cutter
Fluted pastry wheel
Rubber spatulas in assorted sizes
Heatproof rubber spatula
Small offset metal spatula
Large offset metal spatula
3-inch paring knife
6-inch utility knife
10- or 12-inch chef's knife
Long, serrated knife
Wooden spoons in assorted sizes
Wire whisks in assorted sizes
Ice cream scoop
Toothpicks or cake tester
Pots and Pans
Heavy saucepans: 1, 2, and 3 quart
12-inch frying pan
Deep fryer or 8-quart stockpot
Baking Pans and Equipment
Three 8-inch round cake pans (2 inches high)
Three 9-inch round cake pans (2 inches high)
9-inch glass pie plate
9- or 9½-inch deep-dish glass pie plate
7-by-11-by-1½-inch Pyrex glass baking dish
9-by-13-inch glass baking dish
Shallow 2-quart glass baking dish
10½-by- 15½-by- 1-inch jelly roll pan
11½-by- 17½-by-1-inch shallow baking pan
8-inch square baking pan
9-inch square baking pan
9-by- 13-by-1½-inch baking pan
9- or 9½-inch springform pan
Two standard cookie sheets
Two insulated cookie sheets
Two large baking sheets
12-cup standard (3-ounce) muffin pan
6-cup jumbo (8-ounce) muffin pan
6- and 8-ounce Pyrex custard cups or ovenproof ramekins
Garnishing and Serving Equipment
14- or 16-inch pastry bag
Assorted medium and large plain and star-shaped Ateco pastry tips
Four sundae glasses
Two banana split dishes
Two tall 18-ounce glasses