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Although both terms can be used for savoury preparations (meat cakes or vegetable gateaux) their main use is for sweet baked goods.It was not until the middle of the 19th century that cake as we know it today (made with extra refined white flour and baking powder instead of yeast) arrived on the scene. The Cassell's New Universal Cookery Book [London, 1894] contains a recipe for layer cake, American (p. Butter-cream frostings (using butter, cream, confectioners [powdered] sugar and flavorings) began replacing traditional boiled icings in first few decades 20th century.In France, Antonin Careme [1784-1833] is considered THE premier historic chef of the modern pastry/cake world.Cakes can last much longer, some even improving with age (fruit cake).Torte is the German word for cake, with similar properties.
They were more bread-like and sweetened with honey. According to the food historians, the ancient Egyptians were the first culture to show evidence of advanced baking skills.The Oxford English Dictionary traces the English word cake back to the 13th century. Medieval European bakers often made fruitcakes and gingerbread. According to the food historians, the precursors of modern cakes (round ones with icing) were first baked in Europe sometime in the mid-17th century. The first icing were usually a boiled composition of the finest available sugar, egg whites and [sometimes] flavorings. The cake was then returned to the oven for a while.This is due to primarily to advances in technology (more reliable ovens, manufacture/availability of food molds) and ingredient availability (refined sugar). When removed the icing cooled quickly to form a hard, glossy [ice-like] covering.At that time cake hoops--round molds for shaping cakes that were placed on flat baking trays--were popular. Many cakes made at this time still contained dried fruits (raisins, currants, citrons).
When tortes are multilayerd and fancifully decorated they are closer to gateaux EXCEPT for the fact they can last quite nicely for several days.
Cake & gateau: definitions & examples "Cakes and gateaux.