Ingredients: Start with cold heavy cream and have granulated or superfine sugar and vanilla extract on-hand for blending in later.
You can also flavor the cream with vanilla sugar. The next time you use the scrapings of a vanilla bean, dry out the used pods and run them through the food processor with some sugar.
Equipment: A whisk or whisk attachment and a cool bowl. I prefer an electric hand mixer. You can use a whisk – personally, my patience and wrists are not up for the task. A stand mixer with a whisk attachment is good for larger amounts, but it whips the cream so quickly that the risk of over-whipping is high.
The bowl should be deep enough to accommodate the expanding cream (which will double in volume) and to contain splatter. It should also be fairly narrow – if the cream is spread out too thin, the whisk can’t effectively incorporate air into the cream. It helps to chill the bowl.
Whip thoroughly and evenly: Begin on medium speed, rotating the beater around in the bowl to make sure you are whipping the cream evenly.
Add sugar and vanilla: When the cream starts to thicken into the first hints of soft peaks – you'll see little wave-like streaks through the cream – add a small amount of sugar and a few drops of vanilla or the scrapings from a vanilla bean. I like barely sweetened whipped cream, about 1 teaspoon per cup of cream, but you may want to go up to 1 tablespoon per cup. 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract per cup of cream should do it.
Reduce speed and watch carefully: Lower the speed to medium-low and watch the cream carefully; it's almost done. Continue just until you have very soft peaks. With the electric hand mixer, a half-cup of cream will whip up in under 2 minutes.
Spoon it over something good: The whipped cream should hold together enough to hold a dollop shape. Use it right away, if possible. If you need to do it a couple hours in advance of serving, refrigerate the whipped cream. It may separate slightly; whisk it gently until it is consistent and smooth.
Or use a pastry tube: If you want to squeeze it through a pastry tube, the process of pushing it through the tip will stiffen it up more, so it's fine if it's softly whipped.
For a very stiff and stable whipped cream (like for decorating a cake), soften a little gelatin in cold water and then heat it to a simmer until the gelatin dissolves. Let the mixture cool to room temperature and add it to the cream, along with the sugar and vanilla.