They were more bread-like and sweetened with honey. 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. Medieval European bakers often made fruitcakes and gingerbread. 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. The first icing were usually a boiled composition of the finest available sugar, egg whites and [sometimes] flavorings. The cake was then returned to the oven for a while.
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.
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... 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.
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...
Most were probably rather sickly, made from cheap sponge filled with 'buttercream'..coated with fondant icing. French gateau are richer than the products of British bakers. These products naturally relaxed into rounded shapes.
They involve thin layers of sponge, usually genoise, or meringue; some are based on choux pastry. 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. By the 17th century, cake hoops (fashioned from metal or wood) were placed on flat pans to effect the shape.
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