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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...
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.
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.
Thus Artois had gateau razis, and Bournonnais the ancient tartes de fromage broye, de creme et de moyeau d'oeulz.
Hearth cakes are still made in Normandy, Picardy, Poitou and in some provinces in the south of France.
Gateau is generally used for fancy, but light or rich, often with fresh decoration, such as fresh fruit or whipped cream.
Whereas a cake may remain fresh for several days after baking or even improve with keeping, a gateau usually includes fresh decoration or ingredients that do not keep well, such as fresh fruit or whipped cream.