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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)

Oooh! This is so good to know. I had no idea about any of this fancy-schmancy stuff. Your petite gateau is tres cute. Nice job, dear.

xoxox Amy

I was wondering about the difference between a cake and a gateau! Thanks for solving the mystery for me!

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterJen

great job~
love reading you post.
i love mini cakes!
yours look great.

July 30 | Unregistered Commenterbonnie

I was also curious about what exactly a gateau was... but my search was nearly as involved or as humorous! I love the peanut addition to your cute lil mini cake!

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterVegan_Noodle

Epically intuitive post! Your gateau looks incredible, and I especially love the miniature take on the challenge.

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

I always thought a gateau was just a fancy schmancy way of saying cake that has been decorated in a schmancy way, and given a schmancy price tag. Yours looks like a gateau, but in a good way!. ;)

July 30 | Unregistered CommenterY

given the choice between a slab of cake and a hunk of gateau...i'd snatch both and make a run for it. :)

July 31 | Unregistered CommenterGrace

I'm too chicken to be a Daring Baker, so I bake vicariously through every challenge. Yours is scrumptious. Great post, too :)

July 31 | Unregistered CommenterDee

Oh... my... goodness... gracious. That gateau is MAGNIFICENT!!!! Truly a work of edible art - I'm speechless at this point.

July 31 | Unregistered CommenterVeggieGirl

Beautiful! I love the mini cakes - much more accessible. Delightful post, as always.

This etymology stuff? Awesome. Your Cateau (that's cake + gateau)? Awesomer.

July 31 | Unregistered CommenterEB

Call it what you want - yours looks great!

July 31 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah

looks amazing!

July 31 | Unregistered Commentermeghan

I visited Hey Cupcake in Austin today, it's a cupcake stand in an Airstream.


(I had to take my blog private for a while, email me and I'll invite you.)

July 31 | Unregistered CommenterGeggie

I love how you tackle the tough culinary conundrums and still find time to bake, AND take an iconoclastic approach to the recipe, too! Great work, and the photos are stroking my sweet tooth!

I loved this post! Thanks for the info! The little cakes are adorable, I like the thick ganache!

Aw, what a cute little cake. I particularly like the chocolate bow on top!

July 31 | Unregistered CommenterHannah

Wow!! Great job! I love the chocolate decorations!!

Super job - you've made it look effortless. Love the stripey chocolate fan on top.

August 2 | Unregistered CommenterCakelaw

Minis looking good.Always love your psots.

August 2 | Unregistered Commenterglamah16

Ooo, your cake looks beautiful! Love it!

August 3 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

CL: Thanks for the tag! :-)

Sweet tooth: Aren't those thingies awesome? They were pretty tasty too!

Jeanna: We aim to please!

Breadchick: Thank you!

Veron: it's interesting to see what the differences are, whether it's true or just our thoughts, isn't it?

Courtney: Thanks!

Nagil: Thank you very much!

Tanya: We'd happily share a bite!

Kim: Ha! We lived it too! :-)

Surcie: Don't visit when there are no sweets around!

Ann: Oh, and we did. eat it that is!

Kelly: Thanks!

Louise: I forgot to include a slice with your parcel! :-)

Paper girl Productions: Good, that means we're doing our job!

Sarah: It was--we tried it that way later and it tasted great.

Natalie: So true! Love the fondue idea!

Diana: Go get some!

Lore: Well, depends on who you ask I guess... :-)

Laurie: Thanks!

Sharon: that's a good solution--just take both. Cake equality!

Lesley: Thanks!

Gina: We'd never smack for a bad pun, we're bad about that too!

Giz: Thanks! ;-)

Rainbow: Thanks, that is so sweet!

Amy: Thanks for the kind words. Can't wait to see yours next month!

Vegan Noodle: Ha! Yours looked gorgeous.

Christina: Aren't mini things just so cute?

Y: Well, I think in some cases it is! But I guess it also has to do with production time :-)

Grace: We'd make that mad dash with you!

Dee: Ha! Just join, it's not too scary!

Veggiegirl: You're too sweet, girlie.

Cookie Baker Lynn: And ever so eatable. You can eat the entire thing when they're small and not feel that bad.

EB: We heart etymology, esp. when it has to do with cake. :-)

Deborah: Well put!

Meghan: Like, rilly, seriously! :-)

TW: Merci beaucoup! We have to do something or we'd eat the batter between steps.

Geggie: Yeah! We've heard of that place, sounds awesome.

Clumbsy Cookie: Thank you! Thick ganache=mucho pleasure!

Hannah: Thanks, aren't they cute? I just bought them though, so I can't completely take credit!

Prudence: Merci!

Cakelaw: Aren't they cute?

Glamah: Aww, thanks!

Lauren: Thank you!

August 3 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

i always look forward to what you are going to do with the challenge jessie... this is too good!!!

August 4 | Unregistered CommenterAran
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