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My late-2009 iMac will get a new hard drive this week (thanks to Apple's replacement offer. Backup is on Time Machine so I'm not worried about data loss right now.

The system I get back from Apple will contain an empty hard disk only. So to restore I'll have to boot with the original installation DVD which is Snow Leopard 10.6.4. and somehow upgrade my way up to Mountain Lion again.

What is a fast way to get back from there to a Mountain Lion setup? Ideally a recovery partition would be created as well during the process.

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If you have some extra disk space to spare, I would recommend you to make an additional backup with SuperDuper (free for basic functionality, which is all you need in this case!):

You will create a bootable backup, from which you can then boot after you get the repaired Mac back. Test this backup by booting from it once (important) and play around a bit to see if everything feels as it should (improves gut feeling).

Then, you would use SuperDuper, which obviously also is on the backup you have just booted from, and use it to "backup" back to your freshly installed, empty hard drive.

UPDATE: To create the a recovery partition, you can use this useful hint from How can I create or recreate a Lion recovery partition?.

Upsides of this method: You can immediately boot from your external disk, where the bootable backup sits, and you do not have to freshly install Lion, then upgrade to Mountain Lion, and then restore from the Time Machine backup. Hope this helps!

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The Recovery Disk Assistant page says "In order to create an external OS X Recovery using the OS X Recovery Assistant, the Mac must have an existing Recovery HD". Hmm... –  patrix Oct 16 '12 at 12:00
    
Oh, I see! I have updated the section with another hint. –  myhd Oct 16 '12 at 12:16
    
Looks promising, now the quest is open to find the Mountain Lion Recovery Update :-) But never mind, if the SuperDuper approach works (and why shouldn't it) and the Genius in the store doesn't have other ideas I'll move forward without the recovery partition. Or can I run the ML Installer after booting from the external disk and install ML on the internal disk? –  patrix Oct 16 '12 at 12:45
    
It Turned out to be even easier. Got the iMac back today, with ML already pre installed (and a recovery partition as well). So I'll just have to wait 3.5h for the restore from TM to run through :-) –  patrix Oct 17 '12 at 18:32
    
Glad it turned out so well! –  myhd Oct 17 '12 at 22:56

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