Many people fantasize about opening a bed and breakfast inn. They dream about cooking tasty treats for friendly guests who fill the guest book with loving comments that gush about their romantic weekends.
But scroll through the online comments on any traveler-review website and you’ll read that people are frequently demanding, unforgiving and disappointed.
Running an inn is hard work and takes clever management to coax sustainable profits out of a thin-margin business. For people with the right skill set, a B&B can be the answer to a prayer. But that is the rare person.
Ellen Chenaux is a small woman in a large kitchen. Standing next to a 76-year-old stove the size of a Mini Cooper, she browns cheese-filled blintzes and plates them carefully before topping them with freshly made wild blueberry sauce. She takes one last look at the B&B baked goods before she carries the plates into the cozy dining room and proudly sets the colorful blintzes in front of her guests.
Breakfast at the Birchwood Inn, located in the small western Massachusetts town of Lenox in the Berkshires, begins with ice cold glasses of juice, fresh fruit, a hot beverage, freshly baked bread, sweet rolls and scones and one of Chenaux’s fresh-out-of-the-oven savories.
Chenaux’s decision to open an inn was not the fulfillment of a fantasy. It was the solution to a problem, or, actually, a series of problems.
Four-legged helpers at a bed and breakfast
A New Jersey native, Chenaux lived most of her professional life out of the country. Working in communications, she had a successful career, was married, had two sons and prospered. Then, as it happens, the kids grew up and moved out. The marriage weakened, then dissolved amicably. Those could be expected.
Going deaf was unexpected.
Chenaux knew it was time to move back to the States. A soul-searching, two-week vacation at a B&B stretched to three weeks. By the end of her stay, she had a new resolve. She was going to buy and run an inn.
She had a background in PR. She loved cooking. “Everything came together,” she said. But there was the problem of going deaf. How could she manage a business if she couldn’t talk to guests, much less answer the phone?
An operation restored some of her diminished hearing. Powerful hearing aids amplified what remained. And two hearing ear dogs did the rest.
Of course I had encountered seeing eye dogs, but hearing ear dogs? That was definitely a new one for me.
Chenaux explained that, trained to respond to specific sounds, Quinn, her big dog, taps her when the phone rings. The little dog, Charlie, excitable and friendly, leaps up at her when the kitchen timer goes off.
Bed and breakfast’s baked goods with personal history
Chenaux says that guests are attracted to her inn because it is an historic building (the oldest in Lenox), the rooms are clean and nicely appointed with collectables she acquired over many decades of living outside the country, and she’s a really good cook.
A lifelong baker and home cook when she opened the inn, she needed to develop a repertoire of baked goods she could serve her guests in the morning and late afternoon. For recipes, she revisited favorites she remembered growing up. There was her college roommate Jeanne’s batter apple cake and Aunt Norma’s sour cream coffee cake and chewy brownies.
Over a long weekend, my wife, her mom and I had the opportunity, along with a dozen other guests staying at the inn, to sample Chenaux’s breakfast dishes and late afternoon baked goods.
One of our favorites was the cheese blintzes she learned to make when she was a child living in Woodbridge, N.J. The locally picked, wild blueberries she used for the topping are a favorite, foraged in her new home in Lenox.
Ellen Chenaux’s New Jersey Cheese Blintzes
Fresh or frozen blueberries can be used. Chenaux prefers the small, local wild blueberries.
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1¼ to 1½ cups milk
½ cup butter, melted
1 tablespoon butter
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 cups blueberries
juice of half a lemon or lime
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon water
½ teaspoon safflower or canola oil but not olive or peanut oil
1. For the crepes, sift the flour, salt and 1 tablespoon sugar together. Mix two eggs with the milk and slowly add to the flour until smooth. Whisk in the melted butter. If the batter is too thick, add a small amount of milk.
2. Cover and let the batter rest in the refrigerator at least 15 minutes.
3. Heat an 8-inch frying pan over medium-high heat. Brush the pan with oil.
4. Spoon 1½ ounces of batter into the pan. Tip the pan to coat the entire surface with the batter.
The batter cooks quickly in as little as 20 to 30 seconds, so keep an eye on the pan. Flip the crepe and cook on the other side approximately 10 seconds.
5. Remove the crepe from the pan and place on a piece of wax paper. As you make the crepes, they can be stacked on top of one another using wax paper to separate and cover each crepe.
To make the filling, mix together until smooth the cream cheese, one egg yolk (discard the white or save for another use), and 1 tablespoon sugar.
6. Spoon 1½ tablespoons of the filling onto each crepe. Spread the filling evening over each crepe with a knife or off-set spatula.
7. Roll each crepe into a somewhat flat egg roll shape. Now they’re officially blintzes.
If the blintzes are not going to be served immediately, they can be refrigerated if protected from the air with plastic wrap. The blintzes can also be frozen in layers, separated with parchment paper and sealed in a plastic bag.
8. For the blueberry sauce, combine the blueberries, 1 cup sugar and lemon or lime juice in a medium sized sauce pan.
9. Dissolve the cornstarch in the water, stirring well to eliminate all lumps. Set aside.
10. Gently boil the blueberries over medium heat, add the dissolved cornstarch and stir until the sauce smoothes and thickens.
11. To serve, bring the blintzes to room temperature if they had been refrigerated or frozen.
12. Heat a griddle or large frying pan. To prevent sticking and add flavor, melt the butter on the griddle. Transfer the blintzes to the griddle and cook until lightly browned on each side.
13. Place two or three blintzes on each plate and spoon the blueberry sauce on top. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Photo: Ellen Chenaux, owner-chef, in her kitchen at the Birchwood Inn, Lenox, Mass. Credit: David Latt