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The first gateau were simply flat round cakes made with flour and water, but over the centuries these were enriched with honey, eggs, spices, butter, cream and milk.From the very earliest items, a large number of French provinces have produced cakes for which they are noted.Cakes can last much longer, some even improving with age (fruit cake).Torte is the German word for cake, with similar properties.They are variously called fouaces, fouaches, fouees or fouyasses, according to the district...Among the many pastries which were in high favor from the 12th to the 15th centuries in Paris and other cities were: echaudes, of which two variants, the falgeols and the gobets, were especially prized by the people of Paris; and darioles, small tartlets covered with narrow strips of pastry...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.
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.
In its northeastern Old French dialect from wasel it as borrowed into English in the thirteenth century, where it survived until the seventeenth century." ---An A to Z of Food and Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press: Oxford] 2002 (p.
138) "The word 'gateau' crossed the Channel to England in the early 19th century...
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.