Nothing like waiting for the last minute, is there? Fortunately, meringue powder is the newfangled invention here. People have been making meringue for hundreds of years from – drum roll, please – egg whites. In fact, meringue powder is made of dehydrated egg whites, sugar, a gum, corn starch, and a variety of stabilizers and flavoring agents. It can be convenient to use meringue powder, but most people use it to avoid any risk of eating uncooked egg.

Although the incidence of food poisoning from salmonella-contaminated eggs is actually very rare (more cases involve improperly washed fruit), the United States Department of Agriculture warns against eating any raw egg, and is especially concerned about children, the elderly, and pregnant women, whom it considers to be at risk. As a result, many cookbook writers (and especially those who know that their creations – say, a wedding cake – are to be consumed by a crowd, quite possibly including children, the elderly, and pregnant women) steer people toward meringue powder and dried egg whites, which are both pasteurized. Other cookbooks and cooking magazines tell you to avoid the use of raw egg if you aren’t fairly confident of the source of your eggs and if there have been any incidents of egg-borne contamination in your area.

We don’t know what you’re to make with your meringue powder – royal icing, buttercream, boiled icing, etc. But you actually have a few choices for how to proceed – assuming you have access to egg whites. The first is to make a soft meringue, and use it in place of the meringue powder in your recipe. Another, more complicated process, is to make an Italian meringue, which is stiffer and more stable, and can be used to frost your cake. Or you can make a “safe” meringue following a procedure developed by Alice Medrich, which heats the egg whites enough to destroy any harmful bacteria.

It’s too late for you, but those who plan ahead can purchase meringue powder in various quantities online at Amazon.com and other sites. It is a little hard to find in the retail world outside specialty baking and decorating shops.