Long before ovens, a kettle of water boiled on the hearth. Pudding and gruel were standard wintertime fare, on festive occasions they were sweetened with dried fruit and nuts.Thus, plum pudding became ancestor to the fruitcake.

At first the puddings were just wrapped in cloth and boiled. Later they were put into tightly covered containers to keep them dry, or baked in the oven. Macerating the holiday sweets in spirits may well have been an early attempt to keep them fresh. Needless to say, the intoxicating aroma of a well-aged fruitcake adds a festive note to the season.

Those who follow the 'hands on' school of learning will appreciate this enormous fruit cake. For the only way to mix the heirloom baker's recipe is with your hands. It yields 27 pounds of fruitcake, perfect for holiday gift giving.

Although the ingredients are expensive - about $30, the cost per pound is little more than $1.

Macerating fruitcake in liquor is not just an empty tradition. It permits the flavors to mingle and blend with each other. To allow for this "aging" period, prepare the cakes at least two or three weeks in advance. Wrap each cake in cheesecloth soaked in brady, then store it in a tightly-closed container or several layers of heavy foil. PHIL HELLWEGE'S FRUITCAKE (Makes 27 pounds) 3 pounds pecan halves or chopped pecans 5 pounds dark and light raisins 1 pound red candied cherries 6 pounds diced glazed fruit and peel 1 cup unsweetened grapefruit juice 1 cup brandy 1/2 cup dark molasses 1 pound butter or margarine, softened 1 pound vegetable shortening 2 1/2 pounds sugar 3 pounds flour 1 tablespoons baking power 3 tablespoons cinnamon 3 tablespoons allspice 2 tablespoons ground cloves 1 teaspoon salt 30 eggs Milk Garnish: whole glazed fruit slices, cherries and pecan halves Brandy

The day before baking the fruitcakes, combine pecans, raisins, cherries, glazed fruit and peel, juice, 1 cup brandy and molasses in a container. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight.

The following day, cream together butter, shortening and sugar.Set aside. Sift together flour, baking powder, spices and salt. Break the eggs in a separate container and beat together well until creamy. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add eggs. Beat together well. You may have to use your hands.

Now add the creamed mixture and beat.Fold in the fruit and nuts with your hands. Place in 9-by-5-by-4-inch loaf pans or other containers that have been well-greased and lined with wax paper. Use 1 pound of batter for each loaf pan. Press the batter down into the loaf pans very well. Then dip your fingers in milk and press the batter down once or twice with your fingers. The milk will give the surface a light glaze.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Do not place more than 4 pounds of cake into a normal size oven at one time. Bake for 1 hour and 30 to 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool thoroughly before removing from the pans.

To age, wrap in cheesecloth, sprinkle with brandy and store in airtight containers.

Every week, pour more brandy on the cheesecloth.

Prior to gift giving, decorate with candied fruit and pecan halves and sprinkle with more brandy. If desired, add a simple confectioner's sugar glaze.

Fruitcakes can be made in a variety of sizes and shapes. Bake them in a tube pan, , muffin pan, loaf pan juice or coffee can. Some containers might be used as gifts. Just be sure to allow adequate baking time. (See chart below). STEAMED PLUM PUDDING (12 to 14 servings) 3/4 cup brandy 1/2 cup chopped raisins or currants 3 cups torn bread, about six slices, or cake or cookie crumbs 1 1/2 cups heavy cream 1 cup granulated sugar 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 cup glazed pineapple 1/2 cup snipped dates 1/2 cup snipped dried figs 1/2 cup snipped dried apricots 1/2 cup halved glazed cherries 1 cup silvered or sliced almonds 1 cup chopped pecans

Soak raisins or currants in brandy overnight.

Combine torn bread or crumbs with heavy cream in a large bowl to soften while combining dry ingredients, fruit and nuts in another bowl.

Combine all ingredients and beat thoroughly. Mix with electric beater if desired. Pour into a well-greased, floured 3-quart mold. Put approximately 3 inches of water in pot. Bring to boil, ease the mold down into the water. Cover tightly and steam for 3 hours. Add more water if necessary. Uncover, cool and remove from mold. Wrap in cheesecloth that has been well-soaked in brandy. Wrap twice in foil or store in an airtight container. Add moe brandy once a week until Christmas.

Reheat in the oven at 300 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes before serving. Flame at the table, if desired, by warming 1/2 cup brandy. Ignite it and poour flaming over the dessert. Serve with hard sauce.