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Cakes can last much longer, some even improving with age (fruit cake).Torte is the German word for cake, with similar properties.
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 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...
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. 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..England the shape and contents of cakes were graudally converging toward our present understanding of the term.
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.