I'm not sure Charles Dickens was the best writer of his era, but the guy sure could peddle plum pudding.

Dickens' description of the pudding served at the Cratchit family's Christmas dinner has the reader salivating like "The Hound of the Baskervilles" roaming the meat counter at Costco.I'll tell you what kind of salesman Dickens was: He convinced me that I should not only cook up Christmas pudding for our holiday parties, but that I should also whip up extra ones for friends as gifts.

I know a guy named Roy Nicholls who does just that every year. And at my request, he sent me his secret recipe all the way from his English kitchen on Townsend Close, Bruton, Somerset.

Not long ago I pulled the recipe out of the drawer, rolled up my sleeves and began to jot down a shopping list. I discovered I would need a half-pound of beef suet for starters. There were 18 other ingredients, including preserved fruit peels, a food fit only for teething camels. I would also need three or more two-pint pudding basins and parchment paper.

Well, I still might have done it except that in rereading the recipe I learned that I should have started cooking a month ago because the finished puddings are supposed to age for at least six weeks.

And do you know something else? If I had done all this as instructed, I have a sneaking suspicion the finished product would have tasted something like a fruit cake - and I've been known to drive three miles out of my way along unlit streets to avoid a fruit cake.

OK, Tiny Tim supposedly thought the plum pudding was terrific. But what did he know? The rich guy in that story ate gruel every night of his life. And another of Dickens' fictional characters from "The Old Curiosity Shop," named Quilp, "ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with their heads and tails on, chewed tobacco and watercresses at the same time and with extraordinary greed-i-ness drank boiling tea without winking."

The Brits eat desserts like treacle pudding and spotted dick and send their compliments to the chef. Oh, yeah, and they also put beef suet in their Christmas pudding.

Dickens was not a wealthy man. I have a hunch he was selling pudding basins on the side, in which case Mrs. Cratchit was just a shill like today's TV "moms" peddling frozen turkey dinners during the commercial break on reruns of "The Brady Bunch."

The Intermediate Eater isn't peddling anything except for a few cookbooks and this simplified substitute for Christmas pudding.

HUMBUG PUDDING

1/2 cup unsulfured molasses

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 large egg, beaten lightly

2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1/2 cup dried cranberries

3/4 cup of hot water

1 tablespoon of warm water

Water for boiling

For this recipe you are going to need a large pot with a wide base. We have one that we use for clambakes or the preparation of mammoth amounts of soup or spaghetti sauce. But in this instance you are going to use the pot as a steamer.

Dump the molasses and butter into a large bowl and add 3/4 cup of hot water. Dissolve the baking soda in a tablespoon of warm water and add this mess, too, along with the beaten egg. Whisk in the sifted flour. When you have a smooth, brown batter, stir in the cranberries. Pour the whole schmear into a buttered, 8- or 9-inch round cake pan.

Pour one-half inch of water into your large pot. Put a round metal rack on the bottom. The pudding tin goes on the rack. Cover the pot and bring the water to a simmer, so it creates steam.

Steam the pudding for about 90 minutes, or until a straw stuck in the middle comes out clean.

Remove the pudding from the steamer and let the pan sit on a rack for another 30 minutes.

Slice and serve this pudding with either the Hard Sauce or the Brandy Sauce.

HARD SAUCE

1 1/4 cups powdered sugar

1 stick butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Mix until smooth and chill.

BRANDY SAUCE

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/3 cup brandy

In a small saucepan dissolve the sugar in the water. Then, without stirring, heat the sugar water until it turns golden brown. Slowly pour in the cream (the pot may foam up), then add the brandy, reheat, stir and serve hot over the pudding slices.

As Martin Chuzzlewit might have said in anticipation of the feast, "The wittles is up!"