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.