MASTERCHEF! It's that time of year again (yes, I know it seems to be on perpetually, shush).
As the credits roll, voiceover lady India Fisher intones solemnly that "It’s the first of three finals" (um, wtf? aren't they one-off affairs?).
Our three finalists and food heroes for 2010 are as follows:
Food blogger Alex Rushmer, a Chris Martin look-a-like with wildly vacillating facial hair, keen on the science of food and techniques such as spherification, who's already showcased wonders such as magic pea "ravioli".
Mild-mannered children's doctor Tim Kinnaird with a nice line in quips and a passion for pastry, who's produced beauties such as a free-styled meringue mousse with caramel shards.
Media man and dad of one Dhruv Baker, a pleasing cross between Shahrukh Khan and a young Alec Baldwin who's proved himself a dab hand with flavours as well as carving himself a niche as the Deep Fry King (homemade fishfingers for the win).
In the first part of the final, Tim, Dhruv and Alex are heading to Jodhpur, in Rajasthan, India. Gregg and John appear and shout at the camera as confused Indians wander into shot.
They say something about giving the contestants moments to acclimatise (you mean they're bloody jetlagged) and then we receive a montage of the challenges ahead and I scream at the telly and say "f*ck don’t tell me what's about to happen just before it happens, aaaargh".
An establishing shot of the three finalists as they walk through a bustling market. Finally the three men reach Gregg and John in Mehrangarh Fort.
Around them are the beautiful blue roofs of Jodhpur and I'm instantly brought back to The Fall by Tarsem Singh, one of the most stunning films I have ever seen.
They're here to cook breakfast for 40 VIP guests, and they only have two hours to work in a temporary kitchen set up in the baking heat of the ramparts. Tim, Dhruv and Alex look rather warm.
A local chef is supervising and they'll be producing regional specialities. The pressure is on as breakfast is the most highly regarded meal in India - in fact an Indian breakfast is one of my most favourite things.
Alex is charged with making mutter bhaji and poori crispbreads - he has to work with 11 herbs and spices - a daunting task, especially for Alex who's not used to spices (he's been criticised in the past for producing weak flavours - John wanted to taste the pea).
What's more, pooris in particular are devilishly difficult to fry accurately so they become pillowy puffs.
Dhruv is making kachori dumplings with mint chutney and Tim is responsible for spiced gobi paratha with mint raita dip. I secretly dance inside as whilst my husband is a poori fiend, paratha is my own beloved - these flaky, buttery flatbreads are a delight.
The heat is literally on as Tim begins grating three kg of cauliflower for his parathas. The temperature is now 100 degrees and there's no shade provided as MasterChef's sadism reaches new heights.
They're all struggling to finish on time - the chef calls for assistance for Dhruv to finish his kachori and Alex burns his pooris. Tim produces all 40 stuffed paratha with minutes to spare.
Tim and Alex send out their dishes. Tim's paratha are crispy and greaseless and meet with approval. Alex's peas are rated bland (and they look fearfully dry to me), but the pooris are absolutely perfect.
Meanwhile Dhruv is still cooking, but it's worth it as the verdict is that the dumpling crust is golden brown, the spice level optimum, and it's altogether "yum – I'm loving it" (bada ba ba ba).
So breakfast is done, they've been on their feet for over 7 hours and they look ready to wilt, but they're still only halfway through. More walking shots of Tim, Dhruv and Alex, back to the heart of Jodhpur, where Gregg and John are waiting for them, looking as fresh as if they've magically teleported there like smug genies.
They're at RKK School where they have to cook favourite meals for 120 pupils and staff. Punjabi MC's greatest hits are rolled out (makes a change from Take That) as we're introduced to the school's catering manager Mrs Shuchita Singh who is on hand for guidance.
Tim's preparing butter chicken masala and mutter pilau – with 15 kilos of chicken to cook, Mrs Singh says he has the toughest task.
Dhruv is making chilli paneer, cauliflower korma and chapattis, and Alex is making dhal makhani and the dessert halwa.
They've appointed 26 yr old Alex as team leader to make sure it all goes out on time - Gregg says it's his first time in charge and it could make or break him.
Alex and Dhruv are discussing tactics when Torode pops up like an evil leprechaun and sneers "Can you two not work and talk at the same time? Honestly? You've got loads to do. Stop chatting with each other". Full marks to our heroes for not twatting him with a saucepan.
Alex has to cook 3 kilos of lentils which will need careful spicing - John again gets up his grill-piece, saying "Make sure you taste, taste, taste, because it needs ... it needs something". Meanwhile, Dhruv has taken his eye off his paneer which is burning and John shouts "Save what you can". I idly wonder where Gregg is.
There's real teamwork going on here as Alex asks Dhruv to help with tasting and in return he makes the chapattis which Tim then fries.
The heat is clearly causing John to malfunction as he's reduced to stringing words together “Systems. nice. balls. rolling. cooking”. His speech may be impaired, but his eyesight is fine as he spots that cauliflower korma isn't on, but they give it a blast and in the nick of time it’s done.
Moment of truth time - and they appear to be queueing up in a field in the dead of night. I guess if someone told me I was getting a special school dinner I'd get out of bed - the most glamorous our canteen got was when they served up gypsy tart.
The verdict - Tim's butter chicken is "very nice, spicy and yummy". Dhruv's chilli paneer is a hit – "better than mum's". The team chapattis are "just like an Indian's" and Alex's dhal is tasty though not spicy enough. But his halva is so good that one girl is going for seconds.
Though initially worried, it's a big thumbs up from Mrs Singh and John marvels at the three's ability to cook en masse with "a cuisine they're unfamiliar with".
Day 2 is their most daunting challenge yet - Tim, Dhruv and Alex are off to Umaid Bhawan Palace to cook their own menus for actual royalty.
The Maharajah Gaj Singh II is a serious foodie and expects nothing but the best, and to add an extra layer of complication, his wife the Maharani and some of his guests shun meat and eggs.
General Manager, Ashish Kumar Rai says that if it's anything less than perfect, the Maharajah will give a look (he only just stops short of making a throat-slitting action).
Alex is making a starter of tea-smoked duck breast, lobster, maple jelly, apple puree and bitter leaves and a veggie option of cauliflower pakora and aubergine caviar.
Dhruv has opted for an ambitious main of spiced massaman lamb two ways, with a tian of slow braised lamb shoulder as well as medium rare chops, beetroot chutney and spiced saffron pommes anna or a veg alternative of spiced squash-filled dumplings, fried aubergines and carrot puree.
Tim's dessert is green tea, cardamom & lemon delice, cube of chocolate mousse, stack of papaya and white chocolate and his legendary caramel shards and a vegan option of green tea sorbet and roasted pineapple. Gregg's reaction is "nummy" but John is concerned that the heat will kill the desserts. Tim is concerned they won't be fit for his cat.
More Masterchef sadism as it transpires that they'll need to finish off their dishes at a temp kitchen cum tent which is 15 minutes walk away from palace kitchen. John barks "Get your mise en place done cos you’re moving out in an hour and a half".
And next, a terse but moving dialogue occurs as follows:
JT: Alex, please don’t tell me the jelly’s not set.
AR: It’s not set.
AR: I’ve no idea.
In desperation, Alex has no choice but to add more gelatine. Fingers crossed (it's always the jelly).
The Maharajah, Maharani and their friends and family have gathered - rather soul-crushingly, it turns out they’ve instructed chefs to prepare a back-up menu in case the amateur chefs prove a failure.
With ten minutes to go, Alex starts plating up and huzzah the jelly is behaving itself. However, Tim’s green tea sorbets have all melted into pretty green puddles as the temp kitchen's coolbox proves to be useless, so off the sorbets go - back to the main kitchen's industrial freezer.
FIREWORKS! (my average Saturday night) and the dishes begin to be sent out.
The Maharajah is extremely taken with Alex's lobster which is "a rarety and very fresh". The rather fiercely-named Brigadier Shakti Singh is a more difficult customer, dubbing the starter bland. However, HR Highness Hemlata Rajye is pleased by the lovely mix of indian foods "with English sauces".
Dhruv's main is next - and it goes down so well that seconds are requested and he has to make more lamb chops. The Maharajah says the lamb is well done; the Maharani says the aubergine and potatoes really delicious and a dapper guy whose name I don't catch says it's wonderful - spicy, rich and perfect presentation.
When Dhruv goes out to meet them and tells them his name, they all coo with delight and even more so when he says his mother’s Indian - I'm sure they're sizing him up as son-in-law material but alas he is already taken.
Last but not least is Tim's dessert. An incredibly crap haiku now:
Exhale with relief
As Tim's green tea delice is
Released in one piece
The troublesome sorbets are collected from the main kitchen, but they're still not quite frozen. Though they're too sweet in this state, Tim decides to throw caution to the wind and send them out, cunningly renaming them "green tea sorbet shots" (the Indian sweet tooth is notorious so he might be in luck). The whole dish is absolutely stunning anyway.
His hunch is vindicated as the Maharajah loves the dessert, downing the sorbet shot with aplomb and complimenting its wonderful, subtle flavours. The Maharani marvels at the pineapple - "she's never had anything like this before" but she loves it.
Tim comes out to greet them and they ask what he does for a living. When he says the magic word "doctor" there's another oooooh of approval (sorry matchmakers, he's married too). One gentleman says "I don't know how good a doctor you are but, going by your desserts, I think get into food!" - high praise indeed.
It's finally over - and our finalists Tim, Dhruv and Alex have more than risen to the occasion.
And as a fairy-like version of "Chasing Cars" strikes up and we're treated to more scenes of earnest walking, Torode grunts "Let the competition begin in earnest, I say" and Gregg says "We need some more tough tests, because they’ve excelled here" and I say "WTF, you sadists!" and start to worry that Part 2 of the MasterChef final is going to resemble a culinary sequel to SAW ...
All photos/screencaps copyright BBC/SHINE Limited.