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Tale of Two Confections: The Difference Between Cake and Gâteau, and a Daring Bakers Challenge

Gateau Peanut
It's the end of the month again, which brings certain things: rent is due, the calendar must be changed...and the Daring Bakers Challenge. This month, the assignment was to make a Gâteau Filbert (a challenge suggested by Mele Cotte). What is a Gâteau Filbert? Well, on first impression, it seemed to be a pinkies-out way of saying "Hazelnut Cake". But it made us wonder--is there a difference between a gâteau and a cake? It seems that we intuit differences between them--to us, a gâteau is something fancy from a French bakery, whereas cake is what your momma makes for your birthday. You can't make a gâteau from a mix...right? But is there really a difference, or is it just translation? We took some time to tackle the issue, on several criteria. (Of course, if you just wanna bake already, please continue on to find the recipe link below).

Step 1: We started old-school--by consulting the dictionary. Here's how they're defined:


Cake: a sweet, baked, breadlike food, made with or without shortening, and usually containing flour, sugar, baking powder or soda, eggs, and liquid flavoring

Gâteau: a cake, esp. a very light sponge cake with a rich icing or filling.
OK, so it seems there is a difference, albeit a subtle one. (Of course, it bears noting that when consulting a French dictionary, the definition becomes a bit more complex--for it seems that cake translates not only to gâteau but galette as well--the gâteau generally accepted as a raised cake, frequently with icing, whereas galettes are generally flat, crusty and sometimes filled--also including crepe or cookielike varieties.)

Step 2: Culturally Speaking...we soldiered on in our journey, and found the following nuggets in An A to Z of Food and Drink by John Ayto:

Cake. The original dividing line between cake and bread was fairly thin: [in] 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...
Gâteau. English borrowed gâteau 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....
Step 3: Etymologically Yours...also from Johnny A.'s book, we learned the respective histories of each moniker:
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.
Gâteau is the modern French descendant of Old French guastel, 'fine bread'; which is probably of Germanic origin.
Perhaps the more direct Germanic lineage of the word "Gateau" would explain why of the two it seems more closely related to the torte?
Step 4: In which we show cute pictures. By now you're probably drowsy, so maybe it's more effective--or at least more interesting--to illustrate the point with pretty pictures of each (Left, layer cake; right, gâteau):

Posterior View (nice behind!) of Vegan CakeL'Opera
Step 5: Denoument. And finally, before we decorate our gateau, our intuitive thoughts (read: might not be accurate, so feel free to offer alternative views) on this important issue:
  • It seems to us that while a Gâteau is a cake, a cake is not necessarily a gâteau.
  • Cakes are more likely to have a buttercream frosting, whereas gâteaux are more likely to have a rich buttery between-layer ingredient, and generally has a thinner icing.
  • Like many French things, a gâteau is just fancier. At least, we've never seen a Gâteau Funfetti in the cake mix aisle.
  • Alas--a gâteau takes longer to make, and goes stale quicker. Not that we have any problem getting it into our bellies before it goes stale...
  • Regardless of name or origin, both are exceedingly delightful.
An Expanse of DeliciousGateau
Step 6: Fin. Our cake--er, gâteau--is made. OK, so we broke some rules, trying to combine aspects of both the cake and the gâteau. First, ours were mini--but this is just 'cos small things are cute. We decorated them with fancy little fan-thingies we bought at the gourmet grocery, but of course, in the spirit of celebrating diversity in cakes, we decided to forgo the filberts, instead using an all-American topping of peanuts to go with all of that chocolate. The filling/praline topping, which you may notice is conspicuously absent, ended up coming out a little bit...shall we say runny (our fault), though we're certain it will taste great if poured over the finished product or perhaps dipped au jus style--because it was a bit dry without. You can find the recipe here and other versions of it here.




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Reader Comments (48)

Oh, I just wanna cry! That looks toooooooo damn good!

p.s. I have tagged you. See my latest post.


July 30 | Unregistered CommenterC.L.

I agree that small cakes are cute. And with "fancy little fan-thingies" they are irresistible.

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterSweet Tooth

Yummy and educational.

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterJeanna

Always find your posts informative. Well done on the cute little cakes.

July 30 | Unregistered Commenterbreadchick

thanks for defining the difference between a cake and gateau...love the information. And I love your decorations too especially that wavy stripe chocolate fan.

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterVeron

wow that is so beautiful. i loved reading your post it was very informative and fun.

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

Wow!! It looks beautiful

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterNangil Girl

Oh my gosh, I want to bite into that right now. It looks wonderful!

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterTanya

Great posting! I lived that recipe for two whole days, so I really enjoyed your post.

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterKim

Uh oh. I visited before lunch. Not good.

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterSurcie

Love your little gateau! So adorable and "eat me"!

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

Always love reading your posts - informative and fun. Great gateau!

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

Looks like I dropped by just in time to enjoy a sliver of your darling cakes be them Gâteau or just plain ol cake. They look absolutely delicious. I'll take mine to go...Please!

July 30 | Unregistered Commenter~~Louise~~

oo wow, your photos are awesome! Everything looks soo delish...I"m getting hungry now!!

I bet the filling would be very tasty drizzled over top!
Nice work on this challenge.

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

Wow these are so good. You could have done a little gateau/cake fondue with the buttercream haha!!

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie...

wonderful info!! I need some cake now....

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterDiana Evans

I've always thought gateau was simply the French term for cake...ah the ignorance of it :D

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterLore

Wow! Look at that ganache..just beautiful, the whole thing!

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterLaurie

Thank you for differentiating between a gateau & a cake. I'll take both, please. Oh and thanks for Americanizing the cakes with peanuts!

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterSharon

Little cakes are awesome! Yours look really delicious. I always look forward to your Daring Baker's posts because they're very informative!

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterTanya

I LOVE individual cakes. I think they should be mandatory! Your ganache looks sinful.

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterLesley

If I say those little cakes look sweet - will you smack me for the bad pun, even if I didn't intend it? :) I love the information in your post about the difference between a gateau and a cake!

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterGina

You did a wonderful job and I'm totally jealous at those seriously straight cuts.

July 30 | Unregistered Commentergiz

I love your cute pictures. They're so cute. Nice work.

July 30 | Unregistered Commenterrainbowbrown
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