FRUITCAKE AND ITS close kin, the plum pudding, can be approached traditionally -- loaded with all manner of candied fruit and English heritage -- or they can be approached radically -- true to American roots, faster and, in a way, fresher. If you are among the many who dislike candied fruits, take a tip from Mattie Ford, a central Virginia homemaker: "I only put in my fruitcake what I like," she says. That means she takes the radical approach with nary a candied fruit to be found, but hers is a cake that is rich and fruity all the same.

But if visions of Dickensian Christmases haunt your cold-weather dreams, try the Christmas pudding recipe from the England-based sister of Jacqueline Flynn, a French teacher at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. It should satisfy the most Victorian of souls. It steams for hours and can be stored for weeks, is dark and deep to begin with and gets more so with storage and reheating.

Then there is the fruitcake of Mae Brown, who works at the Jamaican Embassy and makes a concoction that laughs at winter, full as it is of good, warming things. It's for patient people with a bit of the sorcerer in them. Raisins, currants and prunes are left to languish lazily for a month or so in some friendly island rum and a tip of nice port. After a time a spicy pound cake is concocted and all is mixed together. After slow baking the cakes are wrapped securely against the elements and left to relax again until they are finally ready to burst forth with flavor on the holiday table.

Right now is not too late to begin the slow marriage of fruit with spirits, and there is no such thing as too early. Brown's fruits are already steeping. "I put them to soak as early as July," she says. "Sometimes June." They are in a glass jar, covered, on a quiet shelf. Questions about what the long soaking accomplishes are met with the only possible answer: "It gives a nice taste. And that's the way my grandmother did it."

Not that such an august fruitcake is a prima donna. It even survives the mails. "Until I moved here from Jamaica I mailed my fruitcakes to the states. They were posted every year by the 16th of November to be received by Christmas." To the great rejoicing of homesick relatives, no doubt, since the fruit brings summertime with it into December. Word of this Jamaican magic has spread beyond relatives and now Brown is kept busy turning out the cakes for new friends as well.

Mattie Ford, on the other hand, takes a dim view of history, fruitcake-wise: She never liked traditional fruitcakes so she doesn't make hers that way. She will make concessions and add candied fruits (the green and red things) for some of her six children or other relatives and friends, but by and large she sticks to her guns -- and her raisins, her nuts and her dates. Her fruitcakes are also rich with such radical elements as applesauce, fruit preserves and crushed pineapple. Ford's cakes can be eaten immediately, or if protected by a little rum will last for a month or more.

Part of the magic of these holiday goodies is the ritual of making them. Jacqueline Flynn, whose Christmas puddings have for years delighted lucky friends, passes this bit of English tradition along with her sister's very traditional English recipe: "For good luck all year," she says, "each member of the family must help stir the Christmas pudding."

Christmas puddings like this one are steamed on top of the stove. Flynn uses the traditional plain ceramic molds that have a lip on top to accommodate the string that ties on the aluminum foil cover. Metal molds usually come with tops. The Christmas pudding can be steamed weeks ahead of time, then steamed again to reheat. It is always served hot.

The fourth recipe in our holiday quartet is basically an excuse for eating large quantities of dates and nuts. There is barely enough batter in the date-nut cake to hold it together. Wrapped tightly in aluminum foil it will keep for two or three weeks, but it can also be eaten after only a day or two of seasoning.

* A fruitcake is usually nothing but butter or pound cake batter together with a proportionately larger volume of fruits and nuts. Fruits and nuts, therefore, should be high quality. Make sure nuts are not rancid. Check raisins and currants for stems, dates for bits of pit.

* Substitutes are allowed. If you hate raisins and love dates, use dates. Try dried apricots, prunes, apples, pineapple or peaches. To chop large fruits, mix with a little flour, then cut with scissors or knife.

* It is important, particularly with sticky candied or glace'ed fruits, to mix a bit of the flour into the fruits before adding them to the batter.

* For long-term storage wrap fruitcakes tightly in aluminum foil after they are cool. Once a week or so sprinkle with about 1/2 cup rum or brandy and rewrap tightly. (Rum is sweeter and lighter than brandy.) Another method, which preserves the cake but adds less liquor flavor, is to wrap the cakes with liquor-soaked cheesecloth, then enclose in foil.

* Buy candied or glaced fruits right after the holidays and freeze. They are much cheaper when the rush is over. MAE BROWN'S JAMAICAN FRUITCAKE (Makes 3 9 1/2-by-5 1/2-inch loaves)

This makes a very moist and very dark, rich fruitcake. The fruits should be soaked as long as possible, and the cake allowed to season for several weeks after baking. It will keep indefinitely as is, but those with a generous nature can, as Brown says, "add a little tip of wine from time to time." 1 pound raisins 1 pound currants 1 pound pitted prunes 3 1/2 cups port wine 3 1/2 cups rum 1/4 pound nuts (Mae Brown uses peanuts and almonds), chopped 1/4 pound candied cherries 1/4 pound mixed candied fruits 4 cups flour, sifted 1 pound butter or margarine 2 1/3 cups sugar 10 eggs 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 teaspoon nutmeg 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 teaspoon vanilla 1 or more teaspoons burnt sugar coloring (available in West Indian stores) or molasses, for coloring

Using a meat grinder, grind together the raisins, currants and prunes. In a large non-aluminum bowl mix ground fruits with rum and port. Set aside, covered, for at least a week. Fruit will keep indefinitely.

On baking day, mix nuts, candied cherries and candied mixed fruits together with 1/2 cup of the flour. Stir to coat fruits with flour. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy and add eggs. Beat well. In a separate bowl stir together remaining flour with baking powder, nutmeg and cinnamon, and fold this mixture into butter mixture. Add vanilla and coloring or molasses.

Combine fruits with their soaking liquors, the cake batter and the nut and candied fruit mixture and stir until well blended. Mae Brown bakes her cakes in round, 1-pound-sized tins like the ones in which butter cookies are packed. They are about 7 1/2 inches in diameter and 3 1/2 inches deep. If you don't have the equivalent size and shape, use 3 loaf pans.

Pour into three greased and floured 9 1/2-by-5 1/2-inch loaf pans and bake at 300 degrees for 2 3/4 to 3 hours. Let cool slightly, then remove from pans. When completely cool wrap tightly in waxed paper or aluminum foil and store at room temperature. For storage longer than six weeks, keep in refrigerator. MATTIE FORD'S FRUITCAKE (Makes a 10-inch cake) 1 cup butter or margarine 2 cups brown sugar 2 cups hot applesauce 3 eggs 4 cups sifted flour 2 teaspoons baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons cinnamon 1 teaspoon allspice 1 teaspoon cloves 2 cups raisins 2 cups chopped mixed nuts, unsalted 1 cup chopped dates 1 cup fruit preserves 1 cup drained crushed pineapple

Melt butter and beat in sugar. Add hot applesauce, then eggs, and beat well. Stir flour, soda, salt and spices together with raisins, nuts and dates. Make sure fruits are separated. Stir flour mixture into butter mixture, then add preserves and pineapple. At this point Mattie Ford beats the mixture, which is very thick, with a metal spoon on and off for about 20 minutes. A heavy-duty electric mixer can also be used, and in that case beating time will be about 5 minutes.

Pour mixture into buttered and floured 10-inch bundt or tube pan and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Let cool slightly in pan. Remove from pan and while warm sprinkle with 1/2 cup rum, if desired. When completely cool, wrap the cake tightly in heavy-duty aluminum foil and then enclose in metal cake box or wrap in a towel. The cake can be unwrapped and sprinkled with 1/2 cup of rum every week if desired. For storage longer than 1 month, keep in refrigerator. MADELEINE BRUMBY'S CHRISTMAS PUDDING (Makes 2 quarts) 1/4 pound mixed candied fruits Rind of 1 lemon, finely chopped 1/2 pound beef kidney fat or suet 1/2 pound large dark raisins 1/4 pound currants 1/2 pound sultanas or golden raisins 1/2 cup dry coconut or shredded almonds 1/2 pound stale white bread crumbs 2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) flour 1/4 pound (about 1/2 cup) sugar 1/2 of a nutmeg, grated, or 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1 teaspoon allspice 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 pinch salt 4 eggs 1/2 cup milk 1/2 cup brandy or rum Juice of 1 lemon

Finely chop mixed fruits. Remove rind from lemon and chop rind fine. Chop or shred suet. (This can be done in a food processor and is easier if the suet is partially frozen.) In a large bowl, combine raisins, currants, candied fruits, nuts, lemon rind and suet. Add bread crumbs and mix well, separating clumps of suet and fruit. Remember, for good luck all members of the family should stir. Add remaining dry ingredients and mix well. Add milk and stir, then beat in eggs one by one. Stir in rum or brandy and lemon juice.

This recipe makes two quarts of pudding, which you can divide according to the molds you have. Butter the molds well and, if they are ceramic, cover tightly with aluminum foil and secure with string. Metal molds come with covers. Put molds in a large basin (a turkey roaster is good) and add as much boiling water as the basin will hold without boiling over. Boil steadily over medium heat for 5 hours. Watch carefully to see that water does not boil away.

Puddings can be stored in their containers, covered, in the refrigerator for several weeks. When ready to serve, reheat by boiling again for 3 hours. Puddings can be flamed at serving time (heat 1/2 cup brandy in a small saucepan and set alight, then pour flaming over hot pudding) or accompanied by hard sauce. DATE-NUT CAKE (Makes 3 9 1/2-by-5 1/2-inch loaves)

This cake will keep two or three weeks wrapped tightly in foil. Sprinkling with liquor keepts it moist, but since there is so little batter it tends to collapse if overly moistened. If you don't like candied cherries leave them out. 6 cups dates 7 cups walnut halves 1 1/2 cups candied cherries 2 cups flour 10 tablespoons butter (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) 1 1/4 cups brown sugar 4 eggs 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1 tablespoon grated lemon rind 1 tablespoon vanilla

Combine dates, walnuts and cherries in a large bowl. Mix with a little of the flour and make sure fruits are separated. Beat butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir together flour and baking powder and add to butter-egg mixture. Fold to mix. Add vanilla and lemon rind. Pour batter over fruit-nut mixture. It will look as if there isn't enough batter, but there is. Combine well.

Bake in 3 buttered and floured 9 1/2-by-5 1/2-inch loaf pans at 325 degrees for about 45 minutes. If tops brown too quickly cover with buttered aluminum foil. Cool slightly, then remove from pans carefully. Let cool completely, then wrap tightly in aluminum foil for storage.