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Rolling pins at the ready for the 'Bake Off' finale

After weeks of kneading, icing and collapsing gingerbread houses, the nation must have a winner. The Great British Bake Off champion will be named tonight after a BBC2 series that has proved a surprise ratings hit.

Brendan Lynch, 63, James Morton, 21, and John Whaite, 23, from Manchester, are the last three amateur bakers standing at the climax of the series, which last week attracted 5.6 million viewers, beating Holby City on BBC1.

The contestants, who must pull off a perfect pithivier (puff-pastry pie) and also prepare a chiffon sponge in the final, have become Twitter celebrities.

Medical student Morton, the Scottish sex symbol who sports chunky knitwear, is the favourite in online polls. Lynch wants to use his skills to help residents in care homes pick up a whisk once more.

Whaite has the backing of Lord Patten, the BBC Trust chairman, who said he was supporting the "Oxford man". Whaite dropped out of his undergraduate law course at Oxford University, pleading homesickness, and transferred to Manchester where he achieved a first-class degree.

The Bafta-winning series has uncovered a further sex symbol in judge Paul Hollywood, the "silver fox" baker, who will present a solo programme, a history of bread, next year. Hollywood and his fellow judge Mary Berry will return in a Bake Off Christmas special.

Praising the series, Lord Patten described Bake Off as "part of the Cultural Olympiad". The series, which first ran in 2010, is being sold as a global format, with a French version due to run next year.

BBC2 faces a battle to avoid losing Bake Off to BBC1.

The Bake Off final is expected to hit ratings for England's World Cup qualifier against Poland, which will be live on ITV.