Poke around in an antique store, or in an older relative’s china closet, and you’ll likely find a tall, ornately decorated pot that you might assume is a teapot. If it’s accompanied by some small cups that look like demitasse cups, your assumption might change to coffee pot. Actually, though, that china curio started its social life 80 or more years ago as a hot chocolate set, which was apparently all the rage among young women between the two World Wars.
Chocolate pots have been around for far longer than that era, however. Archeologists have found traces of chocolate on Mayan ceramic pots dating back to 1400 B.C.E., and the Mayan love of chocolate was one of the first things that European explorers brought back with them.
Although Europeans, especially the Swiss, eventually perfected the art of making chocolate candy, for centuries the only way to enjoy the allure of New World chocolate was as a drink. Marie Antoinette served hot chocolate from fancy porcelain pots (presumably accompanied by cake, not bread).
George Washington was also a hot chocolate fan, and Mount Vernon displays one of the family’s chocolate cups, a much heartier two-handled mug than the dainty 20th-century sets contain. Nearby, Thomas Jefferson enjoyed it so much that he wrote to John Adams that “The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the preference over tea and coffee in America,” partly because it had become one of the country’s first convenience foods, sold in discs of ground cacao and sugar mixed together and dried.
The hot chocolate sets that are common in antique stores and attics were made of porcelain or china, and were popular among young women entertaining their friends. Most of the sets are very feminine, decorated with florals and landscapes in pastel tones. While the pot is the size of a modern teapot, the cups are small, holding only 4 to 6 ounces comfortably; even as recently as 1950, typical serving sizes of most food, from burgers and bagels to hot chocolate, were much smaller than the super size portions we’ve become accustomed to.
Still, the cups are just the right size for a rich drink such as Mexican-style sipping chocolate, a slow-steeped chile-spiked brew. For a faster cup of chocolate, there are tasty shortcuts such as adding a dollop of Nutella to hot milk to create a hazelnut-tinged but mostly chocolatey drink.
Chocolate expert Alice Medrich also follows the smaller-is-better philosophy, and created a hot chocolate that is meant to be served in small cups. She also advises keeping the milk temperature under 180 degrees, well shy of the boiling point, and using the best dark chocolate available. Elaborate china sets for drinking hot chocolate may have gone out of style, but enjoying a comforting cup of steaming sweetness never will.