Monday, February 27, 2012

Signs of Spring

We have had three long weeks of Valentine's dinners here at the inn and a good friend has come for a long overdue visit.  So, I will leave you with a short post today.  Enjoy these photos taken on a walk around the property.

Native Miniature Iris

Lenten Roses

Along the trail through the woods



Along the trail through the woods

Oak Leaf Anemone


Tulip Tree

Dogs Discussing their day

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Quick & Easy Chocolate Toffee Stuffed Brownies

The hardest part of this recipe is waiting for them to cool!

Preheat oven to 350.  Line a 9x13 glass pan with foil so it comes up all the way around all edges and grease.

Prepare two batches of brownine mix per instructions on the box. I buy the Duncan Hines in the bulk size (4 packets per box) Pour half into pan and smooth out.  Take three 6.8oz Hershey's Symphony Milk Chocolate Almond & Toffee Chip bars and place on top (I usually diagonally cut the slightest bits off the outside corner to accommodate for the curve in the pan.  Again, you will be obligated to eat those little bits as not to waste anything. The bars in this photo are the smaller version because Mike didn't realize there were two "big" sizes so no cutting was required)

Spread the remainder of the brownie mix over the top and cook for 40-45 minutes. Set out to cool completely.  After several hours, I lift the foil out, cut off what I am serving, re-wrap the foil over brownies and place in a ziplock bag in the pantry for a day or so, refrigerator for the week or freeze for later on.  Ideally, I prepare these the day before so they have ample time to set up.  If you cut into them to early, you will need to eat with a spoon!

Note: You can make smaller batches in a 9x9 with one box of brownie mix and smaller candy bars.  Also, play around with the stuffings.  There are dozens of large candy bars now...dark chocolate, mint, coconut, etc. Or try sprinkling in goodies like nuts and peanut butter chips.  Let me know if you come up with a great one.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Buying Sheets 101


“I want your sheets!”

Well, you can’t have them.  Not because I don’t love you…they just don’t make them anymore.  Most of the American mills (including Fieldcrest/Cannon that made our wonderful Charisma Dot sheets) closed several years ago. The linens we have purchased since then just don’t match up. And beware of the “Charisma” sheets out there now…they are NOT the same.

My major complaints:

            ~ It is hard to find a fitted sheet that actually FITS.  Nieman Marcus carried a great dotted sheet that was very close to our old ones but the bottoms were so large we could never get the bed made tight.  We use the top sheets and pillowcases we purchased, but folded the bottoms and stored them away for emergencies.

We have nice double pillow-top mattresses but they only require about a 13” pocket.  The smallest most places carry now is 15.”  I won’t buy anything that claims, “one size fits all” or is deeper than 15.”  There is a new place online called Cozy Town Linens that has numerous sizes for tops and bottoms (and they are American made).  I just found them and have not had a chance to buy from them yet. I will keep you posted when we do.

            ~ “Wrinkle Free.”  If you want a cotton percale sheet, there is no such thing as wrinkle free. You can either get a polyester/cotton blend that is or stick with 100% pima or Egyptian cotton.  We fold our fitted sheets right out of a hot dryer so they smooth out when folding.  I still iron the tops and Mike irons the pillowcases.  It may sound like trouble but it is one of the reasons our sheets feel so nice.

            ~ Poorly finished edges.  If I am paying a lot for linens that will last for years, I want them to be finished properly. The fitted should have elastic ALL the way around.  I prefer top sheets to be hemmed all the way around but did have one set with well-designed selvage edges that lasted as long at the sheets.  My biggest complaint is with the pillowcases.  First of all, I want both sides and the bottom seamed (not just a piece folded over and sewn down one side).  And, I want the hem sewn AFTER the seam so it folds over the rough edge.  [see photos]

The best:  Both side are seamed and the hem is sewn over the rough edges on both sides.

Not quite as good: Seamed on both sides and hemmed over one side only?

Both sides are seamed but the hem is seamed as well.

 Only one side has a seam and the hem is seamed.

~ Confusing thread count/cotton descriptions.  It used to be the higher the thread count, the better the sheet.  That was because the finer (longer, stronger) Egyptian cotton strands took up less room on the loom so there were more of them per inch. America got into the fine cotton business with its version of pima or “Supima” cotton sheets.  So look for those terms (Egyptian cotton or Supima cotton).

Thread count got tricky.  Many suppliers were making poor quality fibers stronger by wrapping two strands together and calling what used to be a 200 thread count sheet a 400 count and charging more. I have heard that this practice is being cracked down on but beware.  If you are getting a 600 thread count set of sheets for under $100, there is probably a reason you will notice only after the first washing.  The old Charisma sheets were 360 thread count Supima cotton (percale). They ran about $200 a set back then and were worth it as I am still using some of them 14 years after we opened.

Most sheets anymore are called “Sateen” but are mainly cotton that has been brushed to make it feel softer.  They never feel crisp to me and have a tendency to pill up.

Flannel sheets are a little different in that they they are supposed to be brushed and are judged by the oz. not the thread count.  Most regular flannel will be 4-5 oz.  But, pay a little more and get the 6-6.5oz.  It is well worth the money.  And they are oh so cozy in the winter (and I use the flat sheets as summer blankets)

Suppliers I always look at:

The Country Store
Lands End
Neiman Marcus
(and now) Cozy Town

In conclusion, if you want sheets that feel like ours, get:

1. Pima, Supima or Egyptian cotton
2. Percale, (not Sateen)
3. 350-400 thread count
4. Measure your mattress for correct drop/pocket size
5. Get your spouse to iron them!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Utililizing Old Picture Frames

I love going to garage sales. I love finding bargains. And I love recycling. So is it any wonder that half of the inn is decorated with transformed treasures?

I also have a thing for old picture frames. There are still boxes and drawers of them in the basement, some in pieces, that I will find a purpose for some day. Finding an entire collection of small frames at a sale allowed me to display many of our old family photos in the hallway upstairs for just pennies on the dollar of what the new cost would have been. These were used just as they were.

But some of the old things I drug home needed some help.  This next one came as a package deal with two  good looking ones I wanted.  It, along with all sorts of decor, lined the walls of my computer area in Dallas (for lack of a better place to store them until the move here.)

One day,while leaning back and contemplating something, I got to staring at the lines on this old guy and realized there where little squares and dots around the edge. 

Nancy's Room was already heading towards a Mary Engelbreit theme with lots of black and white checks.  Maybe some bold paint choices were in order.

This went through several trial runs before I settled on something I liked.  At one point, the inside nubby rim was bright pink and the second layer had black and white stripes.

Each time I would just paint it all black again and start over.  When I was happy with the look, I spray painted a clear finish over the whole thing and took it in to have a piece of mirror cut to size.

Another absolutely horrible frame came to me by way of some old hotel that was selling off interior decor in a remodeling.  I don't have the before picture but just imagine an old very dark frame around a picture of "The Conquistador"...very popular in the early sixties. Needing something light and cheerful for a mirror in Hattie's Room, I started with a white base and played around with some semi-transparent stencil paints that I purchased by mistake (don't you just love those mistakes!)  I rubbed some blue into the carving on the inside rim and most of the paint off the flowers and leaves. Now I have a custom piece that is perfect.

So don't be afraid to play around.  Even if you don't need the frame for a picture, consider using it for a a bathroom

Peaking out from behind and reflecting foliage...

Or interspersed with old pictures...

Monday, February 13, 2012

How We Found the Perfect Place

Our guests tell us this is the perfect place for a B&B and I have to agree.  But keep in mind we never would have found this little piece of heaven had I gotten what I wanted.  

In the summer of 1992, Asheville, NC was our destination for finding the perfect old home to remodel into a B&B.  Having read that it was a TOP 10 retirement community due to the arts, natural beauty, university presence and great health services, I had set my sights on the Appalachian Mountains.  We made a home base at a B&B in town and spent the next two weeks driving all over the western part of North Carolina looking for a place.  Everything about the area was beautiful: rocks, waterfalls, trees, vistas. 

We found one old home on a hill overlooking Asheville.  It had lots of acreage outside and great old woodwork inside.  It even had an attached apartment for Mom. You could sit on the porch and watch the town come alive at night.

One day we followed a lead to a piece of property with three stone buildings.  The larger was an old private hospital with a perfect two-story residence next to it and a darling chapel on the hill.  Right across the two-lane road was a stream and a little fishing house.  It was ONLY an hour from ANYTHING and would have required more money and staff than we could have ever mustered. But it was oh so perfect.

The more we thought about it, the more we realized that Mike would have to keep his job for the first few years while Mom & I got the business growing.  Asheville, as beautiful as it was, was a two day drive away, making it very difficult for Mike to run over on the weekend to help out.

We next set our sights on Eureka Springs and Branson areas and took off that next winter in search for something that would work.  What we quickly discovered was that both of those areas were already discovered.  Mountain Home and Mountain View sounded promising and we had a look around some other beautiful parts of the state. Near the end of the trip I came down with the flu and remember being holed up in a dive hotel in Harrison watching the Winter Olympics. We decided to get me back to Mom’s place (close to where the inn is) so I could recover and Mike could eat some good food.  When I finally felt good enough to get up, I walked out on the porch with a steaming cup of coffee.  Looking at the mist on the mountain behind us, I remember thinking, “What is wrong with right here?” We were close to Hot Springs, close to Lake Ouachita, close to the National Forest…perfect.  I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.  I had what I wanted all along, I just needed to click my heels together.

Well, almost.  It took another two years of looking for land (folks around here rarely let outsiders know when land it for sale, preferring to keep it among friends and family) and, at that time, everything else was owned by Weyerhaeuser and they never sold timberland.  We finally decided we would have to embark on a new search when the now defunct herb farm next door gave in and offered us ten acres of their 100 acre spread. The herb farm has since sold and moved on and many of you who have been coming for years miss that little gift shop as much as we do.

But thanks to Pat & Kathy, Mountain Thyme got land and we broke ground about  5 ½ years after our search for the perfect place began.

Close friends came and christened our spot with some fine champagne.

The Chamber of Commerce came out for a ribbon cutting with our stand-in bed & breakfast staged with the mountains in the distance.

And our architect gave eveyone a quick overview on where the house would sit. (She had all the trees surveyed and angled the house in so that only one tree had to be cut down.)

We were on our way!

There are lots of perfect litle places out there. I'm glad we had the patience to find ours.  And glad so many  of you come to share it with us.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Making Biscotti

Biscotti is/are always available for our guests here at Mountain Thyme.  We have tried many recipes from Chocolate-Pistachio to Apricot-Almond but have settled on this recipe as a favorite. It is easy to make and you can always have the ingredients on hand.

TOFFEE BISCOTTI                                          
3 cups flour
½ cup sugar
½ cup brown sugar
1-pkg HEATH Milk Chocolate Toffee bits
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
½ cup vegetable oil

Combine the first six ingredients in a large bowl and set aside. In a smaller bowl, (or large measuring cup) , hand whip eggs until blended, then stir in oil and vanilla.  Pour into dry mix and stir until blended. Don't overwork it!

Making  biscotti used to intimidate me until I did it a few times under my mom’s supervision. This recipe is very easy and straightforward but it helps to have a “feel” for how crumbly the dough can be. It needs to be just moist enough to stick together when pressed.

The oilier it is, the more it will flatten out during the first baking. Every time I make this, it comes out a little differently, (too dry or too moist).  I have gotten in the habit of leaving a little bit of oil in one bowl and flour in another so I can make adjustments once I start mounding the loaves.

Divide the dough into thirds and form logs on you baking sheet lined with parchment. (I am using the reuseable kind in this photo)

First baking is for 20 minutes in a 350 oven.  They should be browned and cracked on top.

The real trick is you DO NOT touch the first baked loaves for at least TWO HOURS after they come out of the oven!  Do not move them to a cooling rack. Do not shift them around on the cookie sheet. Do not touch them.  Just walk away and ignore them until they are completely cool. (Step away from the loaves!) If you don't allow them to cool long enough, all those little cracks will crumble in your hands and you will cream crumble topping!

At this point, I cut the loaves in half and freeze all but one half, which I cut into diagonal slices and bake for another 10 minutes at 350. Note: those little bits on the ends are too unsightly for company so you will be required to eat those! 

I cut these on a slight diagonal for smaller pieces.  The greater the angle, the longer the piece will be. When given as gifts, I cut them long, stand them up in a cello bag and tie with a festive ribbon.

Whenever I need more biscotti, I set half a loaf out of the freezer for 15 minutes, slice and bake. The cooked biscotti  stores well so there is no reason not to bake it all at once. I just do it so the smell of fresh baking fills the house more often.


Monday, February 6, 2012

Why I Own a Dog

[Note – this was first penned back in 2001 when the world was different.  Until 9/11,  I had only kept company with cats.  Soon after the towers fell, a dog showed up on my porch and, as the newscasters promised, my life would never be the same.]

Anybody who has known me for any length of time knows I have never liked dogs.  I don't like dogs for exactly the same reasons that people who do like dogs like them: They greet you the minute you come home, follow you everywhere, beg for attention, and give you lots of love in the form of doggie tongue slurps.  Attributes I once thought belonged to pets that required owners in need of instant gratification.

I mean come on...anyone who has ever been around a cat knows they don't come bugging you the minute you walk in the door.  They are way too cool for that.  The only way to call a cat is with the sound of expensive kitty food being opened!

But, I digress

Upon hearing that I had taken up with a dog, my friend Janie started laughing, (and continued for some time), and finally exclaimed, “I can't wait to get up there to see the dog that finally won you over!”

I must admit he was a very special “one of a kind” dog.  He was so starved and dehydrated that he wouldn't even  drink and we had to force fluids down him with a syringe.  Most of his hair had fallen out due to malnutrition and mange and he had massive ear and bladder infections, (which meant he was oozing stuff from both ends). He smelled so bad that you couldn't get within 10 feet of him without holding your nose. You could tell he had been beaten by the way he cowered whenever you approached him. One doozie of a special dog, all right!

I kept trying to get dog-loving guests to take him home with no luck (big surprise there). He put on some weight and just lounged around on the porch.  Finally, this one woman walked up, went to her knees, took that pitiful, (stinky, mangy), doggie head in her hands, and started kissing on and cooing to him.  Something in my brain/heart said, “If someone can kiss on that dog, there must be something there worth loving.”

And the dog, (then unnamed), was extremely fortunate that the house was full of dog lovers.  They all went on about how the inn needed a dog and this one was perfect (????). A somewhat informal contest was held for a name and Roufus won out, mainly because that is the sound he makes when he does his doggie noise thing…. “Rooouuuuf, rrooouuuff.”

The woman kissing on him got shampoo, dip, ear medicine, vitamins, food...and spent the whole weekend trying to get him in shape.  She did manage to get the stink to subside for a few days.  Some other guests gave money for the vet bill and a third couple offered to go with me as how they were dog people and could adequately inform him of all the doggie's needs.

We get to the vets and, after a quick look and some blood work, the sentence was pronounced:  Roufus P. Dawg, (his official name of record), in addition to all the visible skin, bladder, ear problems had worn down his teeth trying to chew out of a cage AND had heartworms.  Well the vet and the two doggie people all get teary-eyed at this.  Somehow, they are all in love with this half-dead dog and know what the test results mean.

I look at the pitiful dog.  Then I look at the vet, (a cute Kenny Rodgers kind of guy).  Then I look at the guests, (the man is crying.)

I ask the vet, “Can the dog be saved?”

Well, yes…with lots of patience, luck, love...and money.

I look at all the teary eyed expectant faces again.  I then turn to the vet and utter words that came from some other place in the universe, “Well, there is a $600 tax refund check sitting on my desk at home.  If it will help the dog, he can have it.”

The vet goes nuts.  He is so excited.  He says if I am willing to give this dog a home and put up that kind of money, he and his staff will cover all the other costs! I am trying to figure out what I am going to tell Mike. After all, it was, until a minute ago, his refund check.

I do the only thing I can think of which is to walk straight in the door, go up to Mike, and say, “How much do you love me?” which is a code to him that I have done something really stupid but and he should count to 10 while he thinks real hard to determine if there are any good reasons NOT to push me down a well this week.

Roufus stayed at the vets for two weeks.  He survived the heartworm cure, his ears and bladder are better and he now has shiny black and tan hair that has only the slightest doggie aroma. When I went to pay the bill, I found that the other couple went back in after I left and paid $100 against the bill.

His first few weeks at home were touch and go, as he had to be kept somewhat inactive.  The heartworms die and then slough off through the lungs.  He slowly revived but that dog can be bone-lazy when he doesn't want to do something. This tendency had gone unnoticed by Mom, who came creeping into my room one morning and woke me up with the pronouncement, “Honey, Roufus is dying.”

I came flying out of bed and out the back door to stop short when I saw him sleeping at the bottom of the stairs.  I turned to Mom and said, “He's fine. That's just Roufus.”

“Oh, no,” she countered, “He hasn't moved for 45 minutes and I even went down and tried to get him to lift his head.”

I told her to stand back and watch as I retrieved a piece of ham from the kitchen.  You talk about life after death! That dog was up in a flash and gobbled it down it one bite.

He is so happy to be alive and living with us that it makes you happy just to look at him.  Everyone that comes to the inn loves him.  He greets people or sleeps by them at the hammock or takes them for walks through the woods. He doesn't jump on you or lick you and rarely barks.  A guest that was here this week told me, “You know, I used to think this what this inn needed all along.”

I think he is right.  I was at the campfire a few nights ago and one of the cats came out and went to the head of the trail like she was inviting me to go for a walk.  She has never come out that far before.  When Roufus followed me over she calmly surveyed the situation and then headed on down the trail. So, as we three walked the trail under the dappled light of a full moon, I stopped to look back at the campfire.  You could hear laughter and see the flames flickering in the distance.  The inn further on glowed softly with the white twinkling lights outlining the porch and fence and the warm yellow light emanating from all of the windows. The air was crisp and smelled of wood smoke.  And I had the distinct feeling that the inn was now complete and my life is about as happy as it has ever been.

All because of a stupid dog.

Old Roufus has been gone many years now and we miss him dearly.  We have four more dogs that have wandered up the hill (about one every three years or so) looking for shelter.  They all have Roufus to thank for opening my eyes to the Joy of Dogs!


I found an old letter today from Jim & Elsie Warnock mailed to Roufus April 29, 2002:

Dear Roufus,  How pleased we were to recieve your latest communication about your success in training the humans in your circle. They often can be the most difficult to get trained to a canines's fine standards, but it appears that you have succeeded beyond expectations, especially considering the short time that you have been working on the project.

You will be pleased to learn that the Human Training Subcommittee of the Canine Association is considering appointing you to the Trainer's Board so that you can pass along your superior skill to others in need of such expertise.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Displaying Treasures

Over the years our inn has become a repository for all kinds of treasures. Some were made especially for us. Some were chosen to go with the “thyme” theme or the teapot collection. But others were items that were special to the giver, usually from their family, and things they thought our other guests might enjoy. These items create the history of this house...a history that is a palpable presence to me as I move through the rooms.  It is part of the reason this new building has such a warm feel.

We have come up with some fun and creative (and inexpensive) ways to showcase these gifts. Future examples will also be under the label of "Displaying Treasures." Check back often for more ideas.

My first challenge was a collection of old keys that a friend had saved since he was a child.  They came from his grandmother’s attic and arrived to me in an old box. It took some time to decide how to display them until I found the spot where they would hang – a nice long space in a room accented with black & white checks. I found a great long unfinished wood frame at the craft store (half price) and painted it the same black as the dresser.

Next, I cut a piece of form board to fit into the frame (slightly smaller to allow for fabric wrapping), cut a piece of batting the size of the foam board and adhered the two with glue stick . I had a great old piece of loose woven, unbleached cotton which I cut a few inches wider on all sides than the board so I could gently stretch it over the batting and around the back.  I used wide packing tape to secure it to the back side of the foam board. 

After I had the fabric framed and secured into place, I spent some time playing with the arrangement of the keys until I came up with a design I liked. I used a clear silicone adhesive to hold the keys to the fabric.  It has been hanging for 14 years and only one key has needed reattaching.

If you want to finish it so it looks professionally done, take brown craft paper and glue it to the wood on the back side. When the glue has dried, spritz the paper lightly with water and then dry with a hairdryer.  This causes the brown paper to tighten up against the back. Attach your choice of picture hanger to the frame and to the wall and you are set.

This is a great way for displaying non-delicate items that do not need the protection of a glass cover. You could choose stones, seashells, corks or whatever you have stored away in a box.  Bring it out, display it and enjoy it.