For the crust:
- 8 ounces (225 g) store-bought graham crackers (about 14 rectangular crackers)
- 6 tablespoons (85 g or 3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted
For the cheesecake filling:
- 1 tablespoon (1 1/2 packages) powdered gelatin
- 1/4 cup cold water
- 16 ounces (455 g or 2 bricks) cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 cup (175 g) powdered sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 vanilla bean
- 2 cups cold heavy cream
For the strawberry sauce (optional):
- 1 pound (455 g) fresh or frozen hulled and sliced strawberries
- 2/3 cups (135 g) granulated white sugar
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 2 teaspoons cold water
- 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar (optional)
1 Make the crust: Lightly coat a 9-inch round springform pan with cooking spray. Break the graham crackers into a few large pieces and place them in a food processor. Process into crumbs. Drizzle in the melted butter and process until the crumbs start to clump together. Dump the buttery crumbs into the prepared pan and press into a thick crust over the bottom of the pan using the bottom of a glass.
2 Dissolve the gelatin: Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a microwave-safe bowl or glass measuring cup. Stir to moisten - it should look like applesauce. Set aside for 5 minutes to soften. Once softened, microwave the gelatin for 20 to 30 seconds, until the gelatin is dissolved and liquid. Set aside to cool.
3 Prepare the cheesecake base: Place the cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer and sift the powdered sugar over top. Mix on low speed with the paddle attachment until the sugar is begins to mix into the cream cheese, and then raise the mixer speed to medium and mix until the sugar is fully incorporated and the cream cheese looks fluffy and creamy, like frosting.
Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the vanilla extract. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the edge of a butter knife. Add the seeds to the cheesecake batter, and reserve the vanilla pod for another use. Mix for an additional 15 seconds or until the vanilla extract and seeds have been blended in. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beater.
4 Switch to a whisk attachment and add the cream. Mix on low speed until the cream is incorporated, then raise the speed to medium. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Continue to mix, slowly increasing the speed to high, until soft peaks form (peaks that slowly bend over at the tips).
5 Reduce the speed to medium and slowly drizzle the warm gelatin into the bowl. If your gelatin has cooled too much and started to gel, warm it in the microwave for another 5 to 10 seconds until liquidy again before adding mixing it into the filling. Once all the gelatin has been added, return the mixer speed to high and beat until the mixture forms firm peaks (peaks that stay firmly upright at the tips).
6 Spoon the filling into the pan on top of the graham cracker crust. Smooth the top of the cheesecake. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight to firm up.
7 Prepare the strawberry sauce (optional): Place the strawberries and sugar in a large pot. In a small bowl, stir the cornstarch and cold water together until they make a smooth, milky liquid, and then pour over the strawberries. Cook on medium high heat, stirring constantly for about 5 to 7 minutes or until the strawberries have softened and the sauce has thickened.
Remove from heat and stir in the balsamic vinegar if using. Let cool to room temperature, then spoon over the chilled cheesecake and return to the refrigerator to chill for an additional hour or overnight. (Alternatively, serve the sauce at the table and spoon over individual slices.)
8 When ready to serve: Run an offset spatula or a thin butterknife around the edge of the cake, then remove the outer ring. Leave it on the pan base, and transfer to a serving platter or cake stand. Top with any toppings you like. Slice and serve.