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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.
Thus Artois had gateau razis, and Bournonnais the ancient tartes de fromage broye, de creme et de moyeau d'oeulz.
Hearth cakes are still made in Normandy, Picardy, Poitou and in some provinces in the south of France.
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.
At that time cake hoops--round molds for shaping cakes that were placed on flat baking trays--were popular. Many cakes made at this time still contained dried fruits (raisins, currants, citrons).
In medieval and Elizabethan times they were usually quite small...
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.
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.
Cakes can last much longer, some even improving with age (fruit cake).
Torte is the German word for cake, with similar properties.