Two Treats for Bread Bakers: 52 Loaves + Yakitate Japan

52 Loaves + Yakitate!! Japan

Bread baking is one of those activities that can quickly become obsessive, like knitting or playing red dead redemption. It’s not really something you can remain casual about, not if you want to improve your skills, so you find yourself combing through forum discussions, bookmarking blogs and websites, buying books — anything to satisfy your thirst for knowledge and inspiration.

I say it’s fine to embrace such a harmless obsession — unless you start to ignore your infant’s cries because your loaf needs shaping — and I’d like to share two cool things to fuel it.

William Alexander’s 52 Loaves

Subtitled “One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust,” 52 Loaves is a memoir that tells the story of a middle-aged man who decides to bake a loaf a week during one year, to try and recreate the superlative loaf he’s once tasted.

I received it as a review copy, and I admit I was dubious at first — it had the potential of reading like a self-important, overblown tale — but that’s probably because I’d never read anything by William Alexander before: it turns out he’s a funny, relatable, and (sometimes painfully) honest writer.

Divided into 52 chapters, the book documents the baking and life lessons he learns over as many weeks, from his inaugural doorstop loaves to his first attempts at sourdough, from building his own wood-fire oven to growing his own wheat and milling his own flour (!), and finally to the apex of his story, an unexpectedly moving episode I’m not about to spoil for you.

It is an engaging and instructive read with great rhythm, and if you’ve been on your own quest for good home-baked bread, I think you’ll find it as engrossing as I did. It is the book I was reading in Japan and well, I blame William Alexander for making me miss Mount Fuji while riding the bullet train.

Yakitate!! Japan

Yakitate!! Japan

I first learned about Yakitate!! Japan from Andrew over at Lovescool, who wrote about it years ago: it is a Japanese manga created by Takashi Hashiguchi, and later adapted into an anime for Japanese television.

It tells the story of Azuma Kazuma, a young boy who’s not the brightest lantern in the temple, but who happens to have the rare gift of Solar Hands — magical hands that work wonders on bread dough and make him an exceptional baker.

The boy loves bread so much that he decides to “create a Japanese bread made by and for the Japanese people, which can be presented to the world proudly.” This bread is what the Ja-pan in the title refers to, as “pan” means bread in Japanese. (I am told “yakitate” means freshly baked.)

I have not seen the manga, but I’ve been watching the anime with open delight. By no means should it be seen as a crash course on bread baking — the scriptwriters’ interpretation of the baker’s craft is often hazy — but it is a lot of fun to see the theme of bread through the anime lens, in a fictional Japanese environment. It’s a good language learning tool*, too, as the subtitling comes with explanations of the numerous puns used in the dialogue.

The sixty-nine episodes are available for purchase on DVD through the official site, but those are in Japanese only. If you would like to watch them with English subtitles, Andrew suggests sources. Naturally, he warns that “the legality of these [is] suspect, but [the episodes are] nevertheless widely available to download and watch.” I regret that there isn’t a better way to enjoy the series, but posts like Andrew’s and mine might somehow encourage the copyright owners of the manga and anime to make them available legally to English-speaking fans, you never know, so perhaps it’s not entirely objectionable.

* I have a Japanese textbook called Le Japonais en manga, which I don’t use nearly as diligently as I’d like to, but the idea is to teach yourself Japanese through manga examples. It has been translated to English under the title Japanese in Mangaland; Japanese the Manga Way is a similar title that seems to have received better reviews.

Stills borrowed for review purposes from the anime Yakitate!! Japan.

  • I love hearing about books that are so engrossing that life passes you by before you can blink. This sounds like a terrific read, and I will check out that dubious link when I away from my work computer. Great review of this book!

  • I’ve just recently gotten back into bread baking — I made an incredible batch of brioche hamburger buns a couple weeks ago, which has bolstered my confidence. Still haven’t tried baguettes though — maybe soon!

  • Anime about breadbaking??? Awesome!

    I LOVE to bake bread.

  • I’ve been eyeing the 52 Loaves book ever since I saw that you were reading it, but I’m always so behind in books I want to read. However, your review- and a recent post I read have bumped it up, so I’ll be sure to order it soon.

    As for the anime, Solar Hands sounds awesome. Something I wish I had with all the bad loaves I’ve been baking lately.

  • kim

    Yay, I loved Yakitate Japan! A whole series about baking bread & becoming a baker, only in Japan. Still a bit disappointed that I didn’t find melon-pan in Japan, I really wanted to try it after seeing it in this show.
    Maybe a bit of a warning about learning Japanese via anime though – I’ve been told that expressions used in anime are often a bit too ‘casual’ which regular Japanese people would find offensive if you’d use them in conversation (not polite/respectful enough). But I learned a lot about the culture and customs, I love that about anime.

  • You can read the manga here:

    I confess, I’ve only made it halfway through – I don’t know how the anime is, but the manga gets very weird when they go to Monaco! But I have to say what I love about the manga is that occasionally, you get the recipe for one of Azuma’s Japans and learn about some of the science behind bread-baking.

  • design_SMITH

    So fitting – I’m baking bread now! I’m taking a few loaves to a friends for fondue later. Yum.

  • I’m so curious about William Alexander’s book now.

    I know of much worse obsessions than bread baking, so embrace it fully–it’s a healthy and, at least, a fruitful one: you get to eat:)

  • I’m not a huge fan of anime, but when it involves bread-baking?… I’m there.

  • Trisha

    Yakitate-Japan! I never imagined you would mention it here. I loved the manga, but the contents just got so carried away and way too much unrealistic that I stopped buying it. But I remember it was creative and funny. I wonder what the anime is like??

  • I love baking bread, but it def is an art that requires ample patience and practice. Thanks for recommending 52 loafs!

  • Susan

    I loved watching Yakitate, especially the ridiculously “reactions” to the breads that were baked :)

  • hope you are having a grand day. . . love the book idea. . . just wanted to let you know i appreciate what you do.

  • Ah… was trying to resist the urge to buy that “52 loaves” on Amazon… Really don’t want to resist any longer…
    Still, a book that makes you miss Fuji-san!!!!!!
    Have a nice day :-)

  • kayenne

    try looking for cooking master boy… another anime. very cool concepts! a bit old though… i remember watching it about 10 years ago… but i’m sure there are copies or downloads available out there somewhere…

  • I love food related manga series. One such is Oishinbo about a journalist and gourmand who is out to find the best of the best for the “Ultimate Menu.”

  • Last year, I baked a pie every weekend all year and this year I’m baking cakes every weekend. I’d love to have Bread Year, I will check out this book for sure.

  • Jesselyn

    I love Yakitate Japan!! For manga readers curious about the anime, it follows the manga pretty much exactly. As for the legality of downloading the anime to watch, don’t worry too much about it – while it is in a gray area, anime is usually considered fair game for downloading if it hasn’t been licensed for release in the US (or whatever country you live in)

  • ameliecafe

    for another awesome cooking anime, you should check out “yumeiro patissiere”. it’s all about desserts!! it’s cute (maybe a bit too cute at times) and everything looks oishii~~!

  • I’ve just made some sourdough dough so I’ve got bread on the brain. I came to your site to re-read your entries about sourdough, and find another great entry about bread. I love the sound of 52 loaves – sounds like a worthy experiment…

  • John

    as regards Yakitake Japan, there is an english version of the manga available from Amazon, or you can read it online.

  • WOW! Yakitate Japan more ‘real’, yay! :)

    I watched the anime and all those baking tips were really helpfull. Well, forget the crazy reactions.

  • I received a review copy of Williams Alexander’s book, too, and I wish I could say I enjoyed it as much as you did! Maybe I should give it another go?

  • Maureen

    I saw 52 Loaves at the public library just after reading your blog entry so I checked it out, took it home and devoured it! Fascinating sidebars on topics with which I am very familiar (pellagra) and much less familiar (commercial yeast production). Very relatable and may even inspire me to make a levain (when the good local apples arrive in the market in August).

  • Christina

    when I read this I caught it on my google reader and stopped when I saw an image from my favorite manga & anime. This cartoon is what truly made me want to bake bread, my family friends and partner all know my obsession with the wonderful experience of making bread but few anime/manga lovers know anything about the cartoon. The humor and silliness of this should truly be enjoyed by many.

  • I simply had to return, all these months after this excellent post, to tell you how much I enjoyed William Alexander’s book. “52 Loaves” provided a world of break-baking knowledge in his memoir format that often caused me to laugh aloud. Thanks so much for all the wonderful knowledge that you send our way too, Clotilde, all year long. All the best for a great 2011.

    • I am delighted to hear you share my opinion of this book, Marilyn. Thanks for reporting back, and for your kind words.

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