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In medieval and Elizabethan times they were usually quite small...
Cake is a Viking contribution to the English language; it was borrowed from Old Norse kaka, which is related to a range of Germanic words, including modern English cook." ---An A to Z of Food and Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press: Oxford] 2002 (p. English borrowed gateau from French in the mid-nineteenth century, and at first used it fairly indiscriminately for any sort of cake, pudding, or cake-like pie...
In Victorian England cookery writers used 'gateau' initially to denote puddings such as rice baked in a mould, and moulded baked dishes of fish or meat; during the second part of the century it was also applied to highly decorated layer cakes.
Judging by the amount of space given to directions for making these in bakers' manuals of the time, they were tremendously popular... The primary meaning of the word 'gateau' is now a rich and elaborate cake filled with whipped cream and fruit, nuts, or chocolate. Generally, the round cakes we know today descended from ancient bread. They were typically fashioned into round balls and baked on hearthstones, griddles, or in low, shallow pans.
Most were probably rather sickly, made from cheap sponge filled with 'buttercream'..coated with fondant icing. French gateau are richer than the products of British bakers. These products naturally relaxed into rounded shapes.
They involve thin layers of sponge, usually genoise, or meringue; some are based on choux pastry. The later are rarely dairy cream; instead creme patissiere (confectioner's custard--milk, sugar, egg yolks, and a little flour) or creme au buerre (a rich concoction of egg yolks creamed with sugar syrup and softened butter) are used. By the 17th century, cake hoops (fashioned from metal or wood) were placed on flat pans to effect the shape.
Moulded cakes (and fancy ices) reached their zenith in Victorian times.
Since the Second World War, however, usage of the term has honed in on an elaborate 'cream cake': the cake element, generally a fairly unremarkable sponge, is in most cases simply an excuse for lavish layers of cream, and baroque cream and fruit ornamentation...
The word gateau is the modern French descendant of Old French guastel, 'fine bread'; which is probably of Germanic origin.
Cakes can last much longer, some even improving with age (fruit cake).
Torte is the German word for cake, with similar properties.
Gateau is generally used for fancy, but light or rich, often with fresh decoration, such as fresh fruit or whipped cream.