"Hacks": Deborah Vance is Tom Cruise-approved, joining the list of celebrities with the moist cake

A sure sign that you've made it to the top is that the last great Hollywood star sends you a famous dessert

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 7, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Jean Smart in "Hacks" | Tom Cruise | Homemade Coconut Bundt Cake (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Max)
Jean Smart in "Hacks" | Tom Cruise | Homemade Coconut Bundt Cake (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Max)

Rosie O’Donnell, Tom Hanks and Angela Bassett are on the list. Brooke Shields used to be on it but not anymore, and according to a 2023 interview with People magazine, she doesn’t know why. Graham Norton has been on the list for years, but his crew kept him in the dark, enjoying his rich reward themselves.

We’re talking about the coveted dessert known as the Tom Cruise cake, a treat that materializes every holiday season on the doorsteps of hundreds of the friends, associates, and anointed randoms deemed worthy by Hollywood’s Last Real Movie Star. 

As of the third season premiere of “Hacks,” this celebrity confectionery clique includes Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a comedian long scorned by Hollywood who after decades of highly lucrative self-imposed exile is once again the toast of L.A. The cake’s casual presence on a side table in her Montreal hotel room is simply another indicator that she’s made it. Again.

But it’s how the show introduces the status symbol that underlines what a bad mama Deborah knows she is. Contrary to most stars who worshipfully gush about the exclusive goody on Instagram or rave about it during late-night appearances, Deborah leaves the untouched sweet where it probably was when she arrived. 

That way when her spurned protégé Ava (Hannah Einbinder) drops by for a surprise visit, and to get a few things off her chest, the cake announces itself. 

Being Tom Cruise means projecting the image that you’re the best at everything. Including gift giving.

When Ava finds out that she and Deborah are both attending the famous Just For Laughs comedy festival in Québec, the writer decides she needs to confront Deborah as to why she cut her out of her life.  But the sight of the telltale flake-spangled wonder knocks her off her mission.  

“Sorry, is that the Tom Cruise coconut cake?” she asks Deborah, who is once again shocked that her fashion-challenged ex-soulmate recognized this luxury.

“How did you know that?” she says. Ava explains its provenance as one of the world’s most famous cakes, adding Kirsten Dunst’s review calling it one of the best cakes she’s ever had. “And she was in ‘Marie Antoinette’!”

“I guess Tom just saw the special and he loved it,” Deborah deadpans. When Ava asks her how it was, Deborah replies. “Fantastic. I was very funny.”

Haha. Ava meant the cake of course, but her mentor can’t rate its flavor, giving the extremely rich lady excuse that she’s off sugar. “So no one's eating the Tom Cruise coconut cake?” Ava asks, aghast. 

People who have read or heard the rapturous reviews may have been right there with her.

Knowing that the cake everyone in film and TV craves to receive from Cruise is a Bundt, one of the simpler, homier goodies of the baking world, adds to its mystery. Hollywood is associated with excess, fantasy and luxury, leading one to assume that, in “Great British Baking Show” terms, the most famous movie star on the planet would show off by shipping his friends some elaborate showstopper.

But this cake is as humble as its origin story, in that it is baked exclusively at Doan’s Bakery, a family-run business in Woodland Hills, Calif., opened by Karen Doan in 1984.

She and her son Eric make the cakes from a recipe Doan perfected many years ago: a fluffy cream cheese frosting covered in coconut flakes enrobes the moistest sponge in existence.  Putting the cake over the top, reportedly, are the white chocolate chunks blended throughout.

The Doan's specialty might not have ever become a red-carpet royalty favorite if Diane Keaton hadn’t shared one with her “Mad Money” co-star Katie Holmes sometime around 2008. From there the mythology gets blurred. Whether Keaton shared it with Holmes and then-husband Cruise at the time or Holmes shared it with Cruise or Cruise skipped the connect and got it straight from Keaton depends on who is relating this part of the story. 

There are even questions as to whether a bite has ever crossed Cruise’s lips; James Corden alleged Cruise told him he’s never tasted its magic firsthand, which doesn’t make sense unless you remember Cruise’s monastic devotion to his physique. That and the story he told Norton about having to eat so much chocolate cake over three days and 100 takes for a scene in the 1983 movie “The Outsiders” that he erupted like a science fair volcano

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An episode like that would be enough to put a person off cake of all kinds forever. But being Tom Cruise, one imagines, means projecting the image that you’re the best at everything. Including gift giving.

Any commoner can bake and send such a treat as a gift and be considered thoughtful. But to have your cake delivered in a champagne-colored, ribbon-wrapped box to places around the world, to some allegedly by private jet, and know that the receiver will deem it one of the best reasons to remain alive for another year? 

That’s a treat and annual positive publicity stunt that only the star of “Top Gun: Maverick” can afford to enjoy. 

Indeed, Deborah understands what a flex it is to be Bundt-bestowed, But when she says she doesn't intend to eat it, that’s some next-level ego-tripping. And she knows it.

Public knowledge of the Tom Cruise cake stretches back to at least a 2013 episode of “The View,” where co-hosts Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg and their colleagues Sherri Shepherd and Jenny McCarthy make it known that Cruise has so blessed them, proving the claim by bringing one of the delights to the table to consume before a live and envious studio audience.

One celebrity type on Cruise’s holiday list is the talk show host and others who promote his movies and image. This includes editors and reporters at entertainment publications, and at least one writer who campaigned for Cruise to send him a cake in The Guardian. It was a success. The actor sent two.

Getting a Doan's Bundt cake from Cruise unbidden reinforces the recipient’s high-level social status. 

Cruise also sends cakes to people he’s co-starred with, regardless of how long it’s been since they’ve filmed together. He and Dunst worked together in “Interview with a Vampire,” and she’s been blessed with these drops since he started doing the thing. So has her husband (and Cruise’s “American Made” co-star) Jesse Plemons, which means their household gets double-caked each Christmas.

Hanks outed himself as a cake club member in a January 2023 episode of Mythical Kitchen’s “Last Meals,” where he called the cake “so great you can really only have it once a year, which works out perfectly because I don't order it.”

Why on Earth wouldn’t he? Doan’s Bakery is ostensibly within driving distance of Hanks’ home and the Santa Monica office of his production company Playtone, which also receives one of those ring-shaped coconut clouds. 

Even if it wasn’t, the cakes are also available on gourmet delivery service to anyone willing to part with $126. And if that’s too rich for your blood, the copycat recipes are as plentiful on the Internet as the cake’s flaky sprinkles.

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But Hanks and everyone else on that list knows that maintaining that exclusivity lies not in having a Tom Cruise cake but in having enough of Cruise’s approval that he sends one to you. Awareness of the cake or ordering it may be a type of social currency. 

Getting a Doan's Bundt cake from Cruise unbidden reinforces the recipient’s high-level social status. That’s why both famous and relatively anonymous figures are fond of posting pics on social media as proof of membership.

Deborah tries to use it in the same way, grudgingly agreeing to let Ava have a slice at first before bringing the remainder to her hotel room the next day as a peace offering, signaling her readiness to resume their friendship. 

But when a housekeeper responds to her knock and tells her Ava has checked out, Deborah doesn’t offer the luxurious delight to the woman. She’s a notoriously good tipper, but in her ruthless view, some of life's gratuities are principally reserved for the rarest talents. 

Deborah drags a finger through the cream cheese frosting and savors the sweet paradise flavor that is celebrity-anointed success. Then she tosses the cake in the garbage bag on the housekeeping trolley with a queenly flourish, all without breaking her stride to the elevator. One assumes it's going up.

New episodes of "Hacks" debut in pairs Thursdays on Max.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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