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.
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.