A gâteau (pronounced ga-toe) is a French cake, often specifically a sponge cake that may be made from almond flour instead of wheat flour. In general terms, any cake in France may be given this name, but some are more gâteaux than cakes someone might see in other parts of the world. Many French cakes are iced cakes and contain layers of frosting and filling. A couple of special types of cakes may be called petite gâteau, and these became popular in the US in the 1990s. The variants are extremely disparate, referencing two completely different dishes.
The first petite gâteau is a chocolate cake with a chocolate filling that is warm and gooey, and it is often served with ice cream. This cake may be known as molten lava cake in some restaurants. The second version consists of layers of crepes with jam or fruit between the layers, that are stacked high. This too is usually served warm or hot in slices, and may be garnished on top with powdered sugar.
In more general terms, any type of cake can be given this name. The only desserts that it does not apply to are cream pastries, pies or tarts. Cheesecake is considered a cake, as are a variety of loaf or pound cakes. Some French cakes are very simple; a recipe for gâteau au yaourt, for example, is similar to a buttermilk cake and is usually baked in single layers. It doesn’t have a topping, but is served in plain slices.
Buche de Noel is a special cake made around the Christmas holidays. It is a flat layer of chocolate sponge cake, topped with whipped plain or almond flavored cream. This is then rolled to resemble a log shape and covered with chocolate ganache. In the US, bakers may know this as a Yule log or a holiday log. Similarly, the French make a number of variants of the Buche, like the jelly roll, using almond or vanilla sponge cake, whipped cream, and jam in a cream-colored log that is sprinkled with confectioners sugar.
People who happen to be in France or Quebec and who are desperate for cake should check local bakeries for many varieties that will keep the mouth watering. Most use the French principals of cooking, making use of fresh ingredients and not skimping on butter or cream.