About cake The history of cake dates back to ancient times. The first cakes were very different from what we eat today. They were more bread-like and sweetened with honey. Nuts and dried fruits were often added. 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. It is a derivation of 'kaka', an Old Norse word. Medieval European bakers often made fruitcakes and gingerbread. These foods could last for many months.
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. This is due to primarily to advances in technology (more reliable ovens, manufacture/availability of food molds) and ingredient availability (refined sugar). At that time cake hoops--round molds for shaping cakes that were placed on flat baking trays--were popular. They could be made of metal, wood or paper. Some were adjustable. Cake pans were sometimes used. The first icing were usually a boiled composition of the finest available sugar, egg whites and [sometimes] flavorings. This icing was poured on the cake. The cake was then returned to the oven for a while. When removed the icing cooled quickly to form a hard, glossy [ice-like] covering. Many cakes made at this time still contained dried fruits (raisins, currants, citrons).
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. A brief history of baking powder. The Cassell's New Universal Cookery Book [London, 1894] contains a recipe for layer cake, American (p. 1031). 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. You will find references to him in French culinary history books.
Cake recipes, Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking School Cook Book 
What is the difference between cake, gateau and torte? Gateaux is a French word for cake. It generally denotes items made with delicate ingredients which are best consumed soon after the confection is made (gateaux des roi). Cakes can last much longer, some even improving with age (fruit cake). Torte is the German word for cake, with similar properties. 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. 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. 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. In France, the word 'gateau' designates various patisserie items based on puff pastry, shortcrust pastry (basic pie dough), sweet pastry, pate saglee, choux pastry, Genoese and whisked sponges and meringue...The word 'gateau' is derived from the Old French wastel, meaning 'food'. 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. 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. 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...Casse-museau is a hard dry pastry still made today'...petits choux and gateaux feuilletes are mentioned in a charter by Robert, Bishop of Amiens in 1311." ---Larousse Gastronomique, completely revised and updated [Clarkson Potter:New York] 2001 (p. 198-199)
"Cake. The original dividing line between cake and bread was fairly thin: Roman times eggs and butter were often added to basic bread dough to give a consistency we would recognize as cakelike, and this was frequently sweetened with honey. Terminologically, too, the earliest English cakes were virtually bread, their main distinguishing characteristics being their shape--round and flat--and the fact that they were hard on both sides from being turned over during baking...in England the shape and contents of cakes were graudally converging toward our present understanding of the term. 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. 52)
"Gateau. 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...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. 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...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...Most were probably rather sickly, made from cheap sponge filled with 'buttercream'...and coated with fondant icing. Elaborate piped decoration was added. Many fanciful shapes were made...The primary meaning of the word 'gateau' is now a rich and elaborate cake filled with whipped cream and fruit, nuts, or chocolate. French gateau are richer than the products of British bakers. They involve thin layers of sponge, usually genoise, or meringue; some are based on choux pastry. Fruit or flavoured creams are used as fillings. 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. Gateau has wider applications in French, just as 'cake' does in English...it can mean a savoury cake, a sweet or savoury tart, or a thin pancake." ---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 332)
http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcakes.html © Lynne Olver 2000 23 January 2015