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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.
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).
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.
From the very earliest items, a large number of French provinces have produced cakes for which they are noted.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...Although both terms can be used for savoury preparations (meat cakes or vegetable gateaux) their main use is for sweet baked goods.Cakes can be large or small, plain of fancy, light or rich.
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.