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.
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.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...Although both terms can be used for savoury preparations (meat cakes or vegetable gateaux) their main use is for sweet baked goods.Cakes can be large or small, plain of fancy, light or rich.
Cakes can last much longer, some even improving with age (fruit cake).