Perhaps not the most beautiful or noble of cakes to represent the king of birds, but a wonderful baking adventure and foray into advanced creative cake-orating techniques nonetheless! Approximately a 3-dimensional homage to the mascot of the high school where one of us was student teaching at the time.
Step 1: Planning and Crafting Tools
An important part of any baking project is developing a plan. There are always going to be unexpected mishaps and things that totally don't work out as you wanted, but having a framework for what you intend to create will always help, and you can roll with the punches from there. For this cake, we knew we wanted to be able to feed about 30 students with different flavor preferences, and that we wanted to end up with something as reasonably firebird-looking as possible given our time and resource constraints. To this end, we sketched out a design, specifying dimensions (to dictate pan sizes), cake flavors (chocolate, vanilla, and red velvet), and approximate construction steps.
Step 2: When Life Gives You Soda Cans, Make Fondant Cutters!
When you need a cookie cutter in a specific shape that's not widely available, aluminum cans are fairly easy to cut into shape. Just wash them thoroughly beforehand and be careful with sharp edges - we used tape to cover the side we'd be holding.
Step 3: Assemble the Wings
We cut dozens of feathers out of fondant using our improvised cookie cutter, and carefully assembled them (sticking fondant layers together with a mixture of gum paste and water) into wings to dry flat and hang from a dowel that would stick into the side of the cake. We vastly mis-estimated the weight that we'd be able to support this way, but we'll get to that later.
Step 4: Bake the Cakes
Given the amount of decorating we knew we had coming up, and the time it'd take to bake all of our planned cakes with oven and pan constraints, we decided to bake all our cake layers the night before the decorating. I'd highly recommend this if you have somewhere reasonably temperature-controlled to store a bunch of cake, and your cake recipe can hold up for a day or so.
Step 5: Assemble the Body and Head
Pretty standard cake construction: use a hearty frosting recipe to bind your layers, and dowels stuck in vertically if your cake is tall enough to need it. We did some slicing after stacking to get a smoother angle for our firebird body. The shape for the head was a bit trickier, and the skewed center of mass made it difficult to store well (we ended up using convenient tools, ie a measuring cup around the right height).
Step 6: Fondant-ize!
Cover everything in fondant! We employed the wondrous tools of wax paper and a table to roll out a circle of fondant big enough to cover the weirdly-shaped firebird head in one piece, which was significantly larger than our rolling mat.
Step 7: Finishing Touches and Presentation
We rolled a few smaller balls of fondant in yellow, black, and white to do the accents on the bird's head, and gave the red layer a few minutes to settle before putting on the accent pieces, again attached with gum paste and water. During final assembly we hit our biggest hiccup, which was that the fondant wings were far too heavy to hold together on the dowels and tore immediately. Since it was already 4am, we improvised a mediocre solution of photographing our fondant wings, printing them out, and attaching the much-lighter paper wings to the cake. If we could do it all again, we'd design a more solid structure for the wings, perhaps out of cardboard, to hold them up against the relentless force of gravity.
But mishaps notwithstanding, we ended up with a stable and somewhat-bird-looking cake to present to the kids, and it tasted great.