Diners, the roadside kind, abound in my little corner of rural America. Directions to my home often begin with "Turn right at the diner" and it seems that I keep discovering new ones throughout the county.
I wish I could say that their meals were transcendent counter fare experiences. Mostly, we go to these places for breakfast; the one closest to our house makes a perfect poached egg and really good pancakes, though you have to ask for real maple syrup instead of the packets of Kraft high fructose nonsense lying on the table. Lately, though, we've had several diner lunches and dinners which were competent, but trying too hard to reach some never-wished-for imitation of finer rather than diner. But perhaps the just-ok entrees and salads were intended as mere prelude. What I learned this week is that the other course where small town diners can excel is dessert.
Our neighborhood joint makes a Boston cream pie that looks and tastes homemade, with moist yellow cake, perfect pastry cream, and a thin layer of chocolate icing. Ditto the place one town south that offers a chocolate peanut butter cake, made by the owner. (She makes the pies, too, but I have yet to try any of them, not even the French silk, which apparently is so common here that you're supposed to know that "French silk" is fancy talk for "chocolate cream pie." Am I the only one who's never heard of such a thing? I'm part Southerner, which means my oddly named pie knowledge is confined to chess, and vinegar.) The cake is rich, maybe a hair too sweet, but a nice salty bite to the peanut butter center keeps it from being cloying. And the casual Italian restaurant my kids beg to go to (not a diner, but definitely a small town, family style place) has carrot cake that is as good as my homemade. At first, this was upsetting --I am, after all, incredbly vain about my cooking--but now I've embraced the fact that I can have my cake without baking it, too. As a fine cook said to me tonight at dinner, in cooking, you have to know where to take the shortcuts. True of cooking, and country navigation, too.