My friend Bob was kind enough to bring back a bag of Provel from a trip to his hometown of St. Louis, so it was time to experiment with the unique St. Louis pizza served by the Imo chain. It relies on a crust that rises with baking powder, not yeast, and is rolled out very thin to a cracker-like consistency.
I followed this recipe in making the dough then split it up with half getting Provel and half getting the recommended substitute of 2 parts sharp cheddar, 1 part swiss and 1 part smoked provolone (or regular provolone with a bit of Liquid Smoke seasoning). The topping was a generic red pizza sauce (though I’ve seen variations where some tomato paste is combined with sauce for extra intensity). Baked at 450 degrees until the crust was brown on the edges and the cheese was good and bubbly, about 25 minutes.
Bob tasted the Provel version and immediately proclaimed, “that’s it!” It was a dead ringer (or close) to what he remembered at home. The only thing different was that he remembered “black flecks” on the bottom of the pizza at home… from oven detritus? Some cornmeal for sliding off a peel which then burned in the oven? We agreed this wasn’t a big deal. We added some pepperoni, oregano and chopped bell peppers to a subsequent batch and he liked that even better.
The Provel has an interesting consistency due doubtless to the emulsifiers it contains. It was kind of springy/spongy in the hand and puffed up into a gooey layer on the pie (which we cut into squares, to be authentic). The substitute cheeses didn’t cooperate at all. They melted and lay flat on the pizza and the taste was quite different.
Provel is also used in the Gerber sandwich (another St. Louis specialty) and apparently for cheese soups and even burger toppings in the area. Next time I am in the airport I will sprint to the nearest grocery and see if I can pick up a 5-lb brick for more experimentation. Meanwhile, the simple pizza dough recipe is worth having in your repertoire if the late night munchies strike and you can’t wait for yeasted dough to rise.